EAST LANSING, MICH. — During the early moments of Mark Dantonio’s news conference Tuesday, the rhetoric appeared to be absent.
The sixth-year Michigan State football coach discussed last weekend’s loss to Iowa, the importance of winning Legends Division games, and the respect he has for Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
Dantonio anticipated the queries about Saturday’s game at Michigan, and said this: "I'll just take questions today, since this is one of my favorite days of the year. Go ahead. I’ll try and do my best.”
He broke into a wry smile at the end of that statement, which elicited a chuckle from the media gathered in East Lansing. Dantonio later admitted that his statement came with a facetious tone, yet he didn’t provide much in the way of zippy sound bites.
Still, it’s no secret that Dantonio relishes the Michigan-Michigan State football rivalry.
A day after Hoke discussed Saturday’s Michigan-Michigan State game and the historic rivalry in businesslike terms, Dantonio took a more spirited approach to one of the highest-profile games on each team’s schedule.
“It’s a great challenge, but you’ve got to have fun with it,” Dantonio said. “You have to remember this for the rest of your life.
“Other games may fade away, but games you play on a historic basis or a yearly basis, you tend to remember those for the rest of your life.”
Hoke didn’t necessarily downplay the rivalry earlier this week, but acknowledged its gravity, both internally and externally.
“I think it’s important because we’re trying to get our fifth win,” Hoke said Monday. “We’re trying to get a conference championship, just like everyone else. That’s important. You know there’s a pretty direct line drawn in the sand about if you’re University of Michigan or Michigan State. You understand. And for being here eight years before [as an assistant coach], you understand the game itself and what goes into it.”
Dantonio didn’t shy away from the hype of the rivalry, either, noting that it’s even pervaded recruiting.
“I do think you are green or you are blue in this state by the time you probably get to age 14,” Dantonio said. “Maybe 10. Some may argue earlier. So I think recruiting has become accelerated. Guys are making their choices earlier, so it’s a hard swing when you do get involved with that player, one way or another.
“That’s just the way it goes in a state like this, when you have such a passionate following on both sides of the fence.”
While Michigan State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) has won its last four games against the No. 23 Wolverines (4-2, 2-0), this weekend’s matchup comes with a certain sense of heightened security.
Like he did three weeks ago before a 17-16 loss to Ohio State, Dantonio did not make his players available to the media on Tuesday, and said he would not disclose injuries this week.
Adding to that? The Spartans have lost two of their last three games, including a 19-16 double-overtime loss to Iowa last Saturday.
“It’s about get yourself together, people in our room, people on our football team, the coaches just sort of sequestering everybody and getting ourselves ready to go.
“Anything that can bring your football team closer, I think, benefits you in the end.”
The Spartans regard Saturday’s matchup not just as a rivalry game, but as one that could set the tone for the second half of the season.
“I think it can be a defining moment for us,” Dantonio said. “I think it can be a rallying point or a moment where we can start going in the other direction. But I think any football game, I think this last football game could have been this moment as well.”
But, Dantonio added, “you have got to deal in the present. You can’t look in the past. You’ve got to prepare for the future and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.