A disciple of former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, Mark Dantonio's now 6 seasons in Lansing have amassed 47 wins to just 23 losses. By comparison, in Nick Saban's five years guiding the Spartans, the generally heralded "best coach in the country" went just 34-24-1, never winning a bowl game. Dantonio had two post season victories (including one over 2011 SEC East champions Georgia) to his name during the same amount of time. But the two things both coaches have in common is a commitment to a system.
Not unlike Tressel, Dantonio pinpoints the right group of upper classmen leaders and prides himself on finding diamonds in the rough that the have's of both the Big Ten and college football alike missed out on. Of course five star talents the likes of William Gholston don't hurt, either. While in order to recreate their unprecedented success of 2011 they may have to get past Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin for just the third time in the past 25 years, this group of Spartans is primed to do just that. And it can't hurt that all three of the aforementioned have their own fair share of difficulties and challenges at present.
To conquer the Spartan challenge, the Buckeyes will have circumvent one of the better defenses nationally to point. They'll also have to overcome their own demons on that very same side of the ball and put together a consistent performance from the secondary down to a defense line that has struggled immensely to live up to expectations so far.
While Year Two beckons our attention like a siren in the distance, the road to get there begins on the precipice of the experiences gained from games just like this one. Braxton Miller, for all the early Heisman praise, a receiving corp that some felt wouldn't be capable enough but has mostly been on point, and a line that had no trouble establishing the run a week prior will have to be at the top of their games.
Though Michigan State may in some ways still be reeling from an emphatic clinic at the hands of Notre Dame, teams like this one don't roll over and die after adversity, they look for an opportunity for redemption. For both Ohio State and Michigan State the narrative is defined here and now. Whoever seizes the moment will ultimately be the table setters for the duration of 2012 and beyond.
For all the concerns about Andrew Maxwell coming into the season, for all the trepidations and worries about his extremely uneven performance against Boise State, few other first year quarterbacks in the country are better equipped for the task at hand than Maxwell. With three years of understudy to his name, Maxwell's managed to capitalize on his familiarity with the offense and put together consecutive performances at over 50% completion percentage. While those numbers aren't exactly anything to build a legend on, it's worth factoring in that perhaps Maxwell's greatest enemy to point has been the hands of his would be targets. Maxwell was the victim of six drops in each of the past two contests. Despite a still developing trust with those responsible for bringing his throws in, Maxwell's still managed to complete 56.6% of his passes (and hasn't thrown an interception since the season opener).
Of course Michigan State knows where their offensive bread and butter lie. Their running game has consistently been the tone setter even during the era of arguably their most decorated modern quarterback, Kirk Cousins. Following in the footsteps of Edwin Baker and now Tennessee Titan Javon Ringer, Le'Veon Bell has been on just about everyone's shortlists for all-conference honors since long before Big Ten Media Days ever went down in July. Bell's lived up to the hype, by and large, carrying the ball 117 times rushing for 610 yards and 5 TDs. But then there's that Notre Dame game.
Against a Fighting Irish defense (which has all the makings of legitimacy through four games) that would seem to be Brian Kelly's best to date, Dantonio and co. got away from what works best and by the fourth quarter had abandoned any pretenses of Bell rushing them back into the game. To the Buckeyes' credit, while they don't bring the same defensive philosophy to the table that the Irish do, their defense is far more tailored to stop the likes of a Michigan State offense than it has been any of the other opponents they've seen so far in 2012. Senior Larry Caper will also see time in relief of of Bell.
The shaky receiving corp Maxwell and Dantonio have no choice but trust are led by Dion Sims and Tony Lippett. The sophomore Lippett, who made five starts at cornerback in 2011, is second only to Sims on the team in average yard per catch for those with 10 or more. Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler will also factor in the Spartans' down field passing attack.
Leading the way for that stout running game (and also hoping to keep the likes of Ryan Shazier and Johnathan Hankins away from Maxwell) will be a line that should rank amongst the best in Dantonio's tenure when everything's said and done. Sophomore Travis Jackson, the center, may be the most physically talented, though his predecessor in the middle, Blake Treadwell (son of of former Sparty offensive coordinator turned Ohio State's season opener opponent Miami head coach Don) returns from missing almost all of 2011, now at left guard, and also is an impact player. Dan France, Chris McDonald, and Skyler Burkland also factor in at left tackle, right guard, and right tackle respectively.
While not an offensive player in the purist of senses, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy, the most accurate in Spartans' history. In a series of lines that would make Senator Tressel smile, Conroy is Sparty's co-leading scorer with 30 points and 7-for-11 on field goal attempts so far this season. Those four misses all came between the 30 and 50 yard range, but he's a perfect 2/2 from 50+.
Perhaps the Big Ten's best overall, Michigan State takes the accolades heralded onto Ohio State's d-line in preseason but has mostly realized that hype. The amply named Marcus Rush epitomizes what you want in a pass rusher but is outshined by running mate and potential All-American William Gholston. While Gholston is known by fan bases that aren't his own for his temper almost as much as his play on the field, the cousin of former Buckeye end Vernon is one of the most naturally talented defensive linemen in the country.While Jerel Worthy has moved on to reek havoc at the next level, James Kittredge, a former Vanderbilt transfer, and Anthony Rashad White combine to help stuff the opposition's interior running game. Senior Tyler Hoover, a former end, also factors in to the tackle rotation.
Though for all Gholston's accolades, the heart and soul of the Michigan State defense comes at the linebacker position. Chris Norman, Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen all return to their roles as starters from 2011 and instantly rank amongst the best linebacking corps in the country, even if they're merely a year older and wiser. They and an ample secondary have helped create 6 turnovers through Michigan State's first four games in 2012. Norman at times will feel as though he's everywhere, and if the right blocks aren't picked up, could become rather acquainted with Braxton Miller over the course of the afternoon.
Senior cornerback Johnny Adams is everything you could possibly want in a Big Ten corner. A future all-American (and likely top two round NFL draft pick), Adams is supported on the opposite side by the talented in his own right Darqueze Dennard. Much like another Denard in Michigan, with this one gets in the mix, interceptions are never out of the question. Kurtis Drummond and R.J. Williamson serve as the safeties and while there isn't great depth at either corner or safety, Trae Waynes, Mitchell White, and Jairus Jones could also see their way onto the field.
For all the games remaining in the course of the 2012 season, Ohio State, Michigan State, and hell, even the Big Ten, may see their season's apex come this weekend. A potentially great rush offense against a particularly stout at stopping it defense, an offense in transition against a defense in transition. The delta is wide on this one, with the prospects of either a lot of scoring, or a 2008 Ohio State-Penn State-esque death match that would make the Ravens & Steelers smile could just as easily break out. You have to think after the one dimensional showing the Buckeyes provided a week prior, the balance offensive coordinator Tom Herman and Urban Meyer have spoke often of since this past April's Spring Game will be the focal point of the Ohio State offensive game plan.
Holy War. Ohio State won't play a better team until 2013. If they minimize mistakes and capitalize on the luck they help create, they'll finally start to resemble the team many thought they were going into the season.
Ohio State 21 - Michigan State 17
For more on Spartans football, visit Michigan State blog, The Only Colors, plus Big Ten blog, Off Tackle Empire, and SB Nation Detroit.