EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mike Hart’s name wasn’t mentioned Tuesday, but the former University of Michigan running back’s comments from 2007 surely haven’t been forgotten by Mark Dantonio.
Forgiven? Perhaps, but definitely not forgotten.
Michigan State hosts Michigan on Saturday. It’s been nine years since Hart’s infamous “little brother” comment following Michigan’s 28-24 comeback win at Spartan Stadium in Dantonio’s first season as Michigan State’s head coach. That’s one of just two losses Dantonio has in nine games against the Wolverines.
Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) might be undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation while Michigan State (2-5, 0-4) is heading in the opposite direction but there was no resignation from Dantonio or his players during Tuesday’s media sessions.
“Can we win? Yeah, we can win. I firmly believe that,” Dantonio said at his press conference. “I know none of you do, but that’s why I’m coaching.”
The way Michigan State’s season has gone so far, having lost five in a row after wins against Furman and Notre Dame, Dantonio may be the only one who can say that with a straight face and get away with it. Michigan opened up as an 18.5-point favorite a couple of weeks ago. It’s now a 24-point spread in favor of the Wolverines, according to Bovada.lv. It’s the largest spread for either team in this game, according to Bovada.lv, since 1991 when Michigan was a 26.5-point favorite. The Wolverines won, 45-28, but failed to cover.
Ohio State’s loss at Penn State last week has given Michigan the inside track to the Big Ten East title, a trip to the Big Ten championship game and a College Football Playoff berth.
A Michigan State win on Saturday would do more than hurt anyone betting on Michigan; it would potentially ruin Michigan’s season. That is added motivation for the Spartans.
“I think it definitely does,” senior MLB Riley Bullough said. “We’re just extremely excited to play this game. We can’t wait to be out in front of Spartan Nation and play a great game. We’ve been not executing the way that we should be the last five weeks, so our biggest thing, we just want to go out there and get a win, not only just for us but for Spartan Nation so they can hang their hat on something as well as we can.”
Senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton knows what a win would mean.
“This is a game right here that can turn our season around,” said Shelton.
Before Dantonio arrived, Michigan State had lost 12 of the previous 16 games against Michigan. In that 2007 game, the Spartans came back from an early 14-3 deficit to grab a 24-14 lead with a little more than seven minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. Chad Henne threw a couple of touchdown passes, including what proved to be the game-winner to Mario Manningham with 2:28 left, to bring the Michigan back.
After the game, Hart was asked if he ever was worried about having to come from behind.
“I was just laughing,” Hart said. “I thought it was funny. They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you just come back and take it from him.”
Hart has since said he regrets those comments he made as a 21-year-old. But they haven’t been forgotten in East Lansing.
“Ever since I’ve come here, I’ve never shied away from this football game,” Dantonio said. “I’ve never said this is not an important game. I’ve never said, ‘Hey, we’ll get to it when we get to it.’ I’ve always maintained our focus needs to be on that game a little bit more than usual, and that’s never going to change.
“The reality of it is when we’ve won, you feel good about it, great about it, great about it. When you’ve lost, I don’t care if you lose by two points, you don’t feel as good. When you’ve been up by (10) with seven minutes to go and you lose, you don’t feel very good. That’s just the nature of it, and you put a lot of preparation into it, just like you do into every football game. Every football game there’s a tremendous amount of preparation into it.
“This one maybe just is a little bit more because it’s in-state and it’s a rivalry game and because it means so much more maybe to not just our fans but maybe to the players who have played in it in the past and the overall general feeling that we have for each other, that sense of love … Or lack thereof.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo