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INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State’s top secondary rivals of the past generation have been locked in as Penn State and Wisconsin.
But could there be room for another?
When the second-ranked Buckeyes meet No. 10 Michigan State in today’s Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium, they will be playing for conference supremacy, the chance to play for a national title, and — just maybe — something more personal.
With Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) and the Spartans (11-1, 8-0) both bound for the same realigned Big Ten East division next year, players from both sides believe this title bout could help transform a game played off and on for the past century into one of the league’s best rivalries.
The feud has it all: Bad blood, spoiled seasons, big stakes, and white-knuckle drama.
A year ago, OSU coach Urban Meyer called the Buckeyes’ grinding 17-16 win in East Lansing the turning point of their perfect run.
Today, the Buckeyes meet Michigan State again in search of their biggest win in six years. All that’s in the way is a Spartans team loaded with 27 Ohioans that would love nothing more than to stick a dagger into another potential championship OSU season.
Michigan State stunned top-ranked OSU with a disputed 16-13 win in November, 1974, then did it again in 1998 as four-touchdown underdogs to the No. 1 Buckeyes.
Can Ohio State push aside the Spartans for the ninth time in 10 meetings? Or will Michigan State pour kerosene on the flames?
“We’re going to be playing each other year-in and year-out, so a rivalry could definitely erupt,” said MSU quarterback Connor Cook, a sophomore from suburban Cleveland. “Last year we played them really close and lost, and the year we played them at their place and it was another close game [a 10-7 MSU win in 2011]. A rivalry can definitely form.”
Start with Michigan State’s outsized Buckeye State flavor. Outside of OSU, no other Big Ten team has more Ohioans, its border-crossers under coach Mark Dantonio — a Zanesville native — including Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen, and kicker and Ottawa Hills graduate Michael Geiger.
Many did not cross by choice. While OSU often pursues the Ohioans who commit to Michigan, the same is rarely true for those who attend Michigan State.
“Being an Ohio kid and not being accepted by Ohio State, it was kind of tough because that’s where all my family wanted me to go,” said Allen, a Hamilton native. “My friends, everybody I grew up with wanted me to go to Ohio State. To tell them that [OSU] didn’t want me kind of hurt them, kind of upset them, so it’s personal to me. It’s always been personal ever since 2010.”
Cook, who was in the same class as OSU star quarterback Braxton Miller, said many of his Ohio teammates look forward to the Buckeyes game because “they have a chip on their shoulder and maybe a little more animosity because they wanted to go there.”
Add in the fact that these once scarlet-blooded casualties of the recruiting numbers game — and their Spartan teammates — are pretty good, and life is rarely easy for OSU.
If a rivalry is to gain traction, last year provided the latest kindle. Meyer described the game as “two sledgehammers going at each other,” and the battle did not end at the final whistle.
Spartan coaches, who publicly took issue with Meyer flipping since-departed four-star defensive lineman Se’Von Pittman from Michigan State to OSU, accused Ohio State of doctoring scouting videos they sent to MSU — Meyer said it was not intentional. The Buckeyes answered by sending the Big Ten office tape of an alleged eye-gouging incident from the game.
Meyer and Dantonio both said their relationship is “good” and traded pleasantries during a photo shoot Friday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“All that is resolved to my satisfaction,” Dantonio said. “I think coaches are very competitive people by nature, and they’re going to try and win, and they want to try and get every single little bit of information that they can. But yeah, there’s no issues. ... A lot of times I think it’s the media bringing up things that happened two years ago that are trying to create [controversy].”
Make no mistake, though. Both teams want to mince the other today.
“I would say a rivalry is built on giving each other a hard time year-in and year-out,” OSU defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “I know we’ve given them a hard time and they’ve definitely given us one.”