COLUMBUS — There is no disputing Ohio State’s greatest rival.
But in the Urban Meyer era at OSU, the Buckeyes have found themselves in an annual skirmish with a Michigan school that isn’t The Game. The recent history of the Ohio State-Michigan State series is one of antagonism — of underdogs ruining seasons, road teams flying in the face of convention, and the winner using the meeting as a launching point.
The stakes have varied each time, but the past five meetings have had three things in common: Something important was on the line, the game was unusually physical, and the game came down to the fourth quarter.
“That is what Big Ten football is,” Buckeyes center Billy Price said. “Do I consider them to be the No. 1 rival? Obviously no, but it’s a tough matchup every [year].”
The stakes for Saturday’s date at Ohio Stadium are clear. The No. 11 Buckeyes (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) and the No. 13 Spartans (7-2, 5-1) begin the day tied for first place in the Big Ten East Division, and the winner will have a one-game lead over everyone, plus two key tiebreakers, as both teams also beat Penn State.
During Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State, the winner of the OSU-Michigan State game has always gone on to something important.
“Usually it’s just a prize fight,” Meyer said. “The tougher team usually wins.”
In 2012, OSU survived by one point at MSU in what became an undefeated season. The Spartans prevented Ohio State from the BCS national championship game in 2013 with an upset in the Big Ten championship game, then the Buckeyes returned the favor by upsetting the Spartans in East Lansing on the way to their title run in 2014.
MSU ripped a College Football Playoff spot away from OSU with an upset in 2015, and the Buckeyes held off a late two-point conversion in a 17-16 win on the way to the playoff last season.
Surprisingly, a home team has not won in this rivalry since 2007. The team favored to win is 1-4 in the past five meetings.
“It is a rivalry in its own mind,” Meyer said. “It’s been a competitive game as long as I can remember, going back to my childhood watching Michigan State versus Ohio State. There’s a lot on the table when we play these guys.”
One of the reasons: Michigan State recruits Ohio harder than any out-of-state program. MSU running back LJ Scott is from Hubbard, a Youngstown suburb; punter Jake Hartbarger is an Anthony Wayne graduate; and all three starting linebackers are Ohioans.
Ten of MSU’s starters, including the specialists, are from Ohio.
“We have 26 guys on our team from the state, so there’s a little added enthusiasm, I would say, just to have an opportunity to go back home and play,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think that’s normal.”
In this series, a late-season epic has been the norm.
The Buckeyes — the big favorite this time — are expecting more of the same.
“Us being on the same side competing for that Big Ten East — the past [five] we’ve been going back and forth,” Buckeyes left tackle Jamarco Jones said. “This is one of those games where you know you have to bring it every play.”
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