Taking over a program in 2007 that had suffered through five losing campaigns in the previous seven seasons, Dantonio wanted to draw from the Big Ten programs he coaches against to instill toughness, solid fundamentals and a winning mindset.
One program was Iowa and another one was Barry Alvarez’s Wisconsin teams.
“We had to emulate certain programs we wanted to pattern ourselves after,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “Playing good defense, being able to run the ball, not turn it over, solid special teams, they’ve been successful under Coach Alvarez.”
Considering the blueprint, it’s not a stretch to see why No.11 Wisconsin and No.8 Michigan State have played some thrilling contests in the last decade and could likely add another chapter when they play Saturday in the conference opener in East Lansing (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).
Six of the last seven meetings between the two schools have been decided by one possession or less and have created some memorable plays, especially in 2011.
Fourth in the country entering the game, Wisconsin was stunned when the Spartans scored on a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol as time expired. Later that season in the inaugural conference title game, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson completed a 36-yard pass to receiver Jeff Duckworth on fourth-and-6, setting up the winning score in UW’s 42-39 triumph.
“That play is still on the walls here,” receiver Rob Wheelwright said.
The series has also been filled with blocked kicks and punts, punt returns for touchdowns and special teams penalties that have been the difference.
In 2008, a holding call negated a Wisconsin first down that would have helped the Badgers run out the clock. Michigan State kicked the game-winning field goal with seven seconds left after being down 11 in the fourth quarter. The Badgers were penalized 12 times for 121 yards, including a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against then-head coach Bret Bielema, who also made a critical timeout gaffe to set up the winning kick.
In 2010 a 74-yard punt return by Keshawn Martin for a touchdown in the second quarter provided the spark that propelled the Spartans in a 10-point win.
A year later Nichol’s Hail Mary became the memorable play, but the Spartans were in position to win due to a 23-point second quarter, capped with a blocked punt in the end zone just before halftime.
“They have been very exciting games, tough, run oriented, stop the run, don’t turn the ball over,” Dantonio said. “Special teams always play a part in this. Big plays play a part in it. That’s the history of the game.”
With conference realignment keeping the teams off one another’s schedule, the list of players who have prepped for one another is short – limited to only fifth-year seniors. That’s only eight players for Wisconsin, including outside linebacker Vince Biegel.
“They do a lot of similar things to our offense,” Biegel said. “They want to control the clock. They want to control the ball. Really looking forward to the opportunity. They are a great team.”
In the three seasons the Spartans were off the schedule, Michigan State has gone 36-5, won two Big Ten titles, won the Rose and Cotton Bowl and advanced to the College Football Playoff. This year Michigan State – despite having to replace a starting quarterback, three offensive linemen and three defensive linemen – vaulted up the polls after its 36-28 win over at No.18 Notre Dame.
Michigan State led 36-7 in the third quarter and held on because Tyler O’Connor, a fifth-year senior making his third career start, was 19 of 26 passing for 241 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on a deflected pass.
O’Connor also led Michigan State to a 17-14 win at No.2 Ohio State last year when senior Connor Cook was out with an injury.
“It serves as a friendly reminder that we can go out and win in a tough environment,” O’Connor told BTN. “Win against top tier talent, which those schools have every year, it just reminds us that we’re here to stay. We’re capable of playing with anybody in this country.”
Watching the film Sunday of MSU-Notre Dame, Wheelwright said Michigan State’s defensive backs are just going to line up and play physical.
“Nothing too fancy,” Wheelwright said. “More like an Iowa team.”
From the sounds of it, exactly like a Wisconsin one, too.