When Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham came on our Big Ten podcast earlier this month, he didn't hide his enthusiasm for the upcoming game at Ohio State.
"It's big for anybody who's going back to their home state," said Cunningham, whose hometown of Westerville, Ohio, is just outside of Columbus. "We have a few Ohio guys on our team, so it should be fun. We're going to be pumped and ready for it."
Freshman defensive end Marcus Rush told the Detroit Free Press after last week's win over Central Michigan that he was eager to take on the Buckeyes.
"They didn't recruit me," the Cincinnati product said. "It rubbed me the wrong way. This is a personal thing. I'm definitely excited, just coming from Ohio. I can't wait."
It's clear that Saturday's game means a lot to the Spartans, and not just because it's the Big Ten opener. There are 25 Ohio natives on the roster, all of whom are jacked up to show something to their home state's flagship program.
Head coach Mark Dantonio said he wants his players to use that excitement and adrenaline to their benefit on Saturday. But he didn't want them getting too excited in the leadup to this game. Dantonio barred all his players from talking to the media this week. He said it was to avoid putting the Spartans "in a compromising situation."
Maybe a change to the routine will be good, because Michigan State has lost seven straight times to Ohio State, with its last victory coming in 1999. Since taking over the Spartans in 2007, Dantonio has beaten every Big Ten team he has faced at least once except the Buckeyes. The two teams did not play in 2009 or 2010, however.
Dantonio has similar motivation as his players to finally beat Ohio State, since he grew up in Ohio and is a former Buckeyes' defensive coordinator.
"From a program perspective, when you look at it, it's the one team we've not beaten here in four years," he said. "If you're from Ohio, there's a little added something just because you're going home and playing in front of a lot of family and friends. I think that gives it added significance."
Not that this week's game needs much more significance. While the Big Ten game most casual fans will focus on takes place in Madison, Wis., on Saturday night, this one might be even more intriguing. Michigan State and Ohio State are both 3-1, and while a setback Saturday doesn't kill any divisional title hopes, the loser will find itself backed into a corner with a difficult October schedule remaining. The Spartans have to play Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska the rest of the month, while the Buckeyes play the Huskers and Badgers with Illinois in between.
This game also presents an interesting battle between strengths and weaknesses. Michigan State has the No. 1 ranked defense in the country, and Dantonio said a big reason why is that the Spartans have been able to make teams one-dimensional on offense. Few attacks have been more one-dimensional lately than the Buckeyes, whose starting quarterbacks have completed a total of nine passes in the past two games.
"Michigan State is probably as good up front as we've seen," Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said. "They're going to definitely get on your guys outside. They're going to put pressure on you, whether it's four, five, six men. I think we understand that.
"We've got to find more balance. That's not always easy to do."
There is a similar concern on the flip side. Michigan State has had difficulty establishing a running game against top-flight defenses in the past, and the injuries and inexperience on this year's offensive line have not helped. Against Notre Dame, which was by far the best team they have played, the Spartans ran for just 29 yards. If they can't change that against the Silver Bullets, then all the pressure will be on Kirk Cousins' shoulders in the passing game.
Winning in Columbus is never easy. But Michigan State will face an unranked Ohio State team still trying to figure things out, a week before four key players return from suspension. If the Spartans are going to get over this hurdle, this may be their best chance.
"You have to point towards those things and say, hey, we can beat anybody in this conference, and we can measure up against anybody in this conference," Dantonio said. "That's been the goal here since we've come here, is to be able to measure up against anybody in this conference at any time."