Michigan St. out to prove it can handle prosperity

About 65 miles of highway and scenic countryside separate Michigan Stadium and Spartan Stadium.

Unless, of course, you're not talking geography, but self image.

In that case, the distance between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University can't be traversed with one tank of high-test in a hybrid vehicle with a gale-force wind at its back.

Nothing will happen to change that reality Saturday, when MSU plays host to Notre Dame (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) in a game that could elevate the Spartans to 4-0 entering their Big Ten Conference opener next week.

Why won't a victory over the Fighting Irish do for Michigan State what Michigan's 47-21 humbling of Notre Dame did for Wolverines?

Well -- and you're not gonna like this, Sparty -- because Michigan is Michigan and Michigan State is Michigan State.

You'll recall that Lloyd Carr's crew shot from No. 11 to No. 6 after dancing on Charlie Weis' Mensa membership and is now being mentioned as perhaps the last impediment to No. 1 Ohio State running the table to the national championship game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

Nobody will say that about Michigan State if it rolls Notre Dame in similar fashion.

The reason isn't simply related to MSU folding like a Third World economy after a 44-41 overtime triumph at South Bend last season.

It's more that the Spartans have made an annual rite of imploding at the first sign of significant progress.

There was that 28-24 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus in 1998, followed by an inexplicable home loss the next week to Purdue, defeats in two of MSU's final three games and a resultant bowl season spent at home.

And then in 1999, Michigan State seized control of the Big Ten with an upset of No. 3 Michigan, only to lose back-to-back (at Purdue and Wisconsin) thereafter.

In 2000, a win over No. 16 Notre Dame brought a 3-0 start, but triggered a four-game MSU losing streak and a sub-.500 finish.

Then in 2001, the unranked Spartans stunned No. 6 Michigan, only to lose their next three.

Are you sensing a pattern here?

Michigan State lost four of its last five in both 2003 and 2004 and blew up like a trick cigar last season after defeating Notre Dame and rising to No. 11 nationally.

So even if the Spartans survive Notre Dame again on Saturday, more evidence will be required.

Head coach John L. Smith knows such skepticism exists because, well, he's harbored some of it himself in the aftermath of Michigan State losing six of its final seven games in 2005.

That's why Smith came into this year wanting to see proof his team's psyche no longer required a "Fragile: Handle with Care'' label.

Slowly, he's gotten it. First, when MSU withstood a 17-0 Eastern Michigan spurt late in the first half of an eventual 52-20 win, and then again last week at Pittsburgh.

The first quarter at Heinz Field was more gruesome than a four-course meal on "Fear Factor."

Pitt bolted to a 10-0 lead, then recovered an onside kick. Meanwhile, Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton didn't complete a single pass and the Spartans managed just 28 yards total offense and two first downs.

But just when it appeared MSU was getting an early start on its late-season collapse, the defense surprisingly stiffened and the offense awoke.

Thirty-eight unanswered points later, Smith had some of the evidence he's been searching for.

"We came out and things didn't click right off the bat and the defense kept us in there," he said. "I thought what was huge was after the onside kick. You've got to hold them at that point and get us back in this thing. So I thought the way we dealt with the adversity was good."

Notre Dame brings another brand of trouble.

The Irish undoubtedly will be looking to take out the frustrations Weis has been taking out at practice since the third home loss of his career and the second consecutive beating by one of the Big Ten's royal family. (You do remember that 617-yard Ohio State outburst in the Fiesta Bowl, right?)

Smith has done everything he can to stoke his team's furnace, offering as fact the yet-to-be-confirmed tale that Weis told a Notre Dame alumni gathering this past summer, "We will never lose to Michigan State again on my watch."

Weis scoffs at that, but he's been clear about his distaste for MSU's players planting their cheerleaders' flag on the 35-yard line last year after the victory in Notre Dame Stadium.

Smith sniffs right back, contending his team did so only because Notre Dame didn't bring the Megaphone Trophy the teams contest so it could be passed to Michigan State.

"I think they didn't plan on losing it, so they didn't bring it,'' Smith said.

Maybe, but you'd think Notre Dame would be accustomed to that particular vacancy in its trophy case, having lost seven of its last nine to Michigan State.

"If they want to sit there and talk about flag-planting, it's time for us to move on,'' MSU quarterback Drew Stanton said. "There's no doubt about it, they've got a sour taste in their mouth. I don't think it's because of flag-planting. It's because we won.''

Stanton and his teammates know all about sour tastes, having swallowed a steady diet of frustration every time liberation beckoned around the next corner.

"We can't pat ourselves on the back every time we do something good," defensive tackle Clifton Ryan said. "We have to step it up and not get ahead of ourselves."

That's right, because after Notre Dame comes an Oct. 7 trip to Michigan and an Oct. 14 home date with Ohio State.

Navigate those land mines, and the five proving-ground games that follow, and Michigan State might do more than plant its first Big Ten championship flag in 16 seasons.

The Spartans might also drive a stake right through that outsized inferiority complex they've been sporting.

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM1460 in Columbus, Ohio.