EAST LANSING, Mich. – Chris Frey is from Upper Arlington, a stone’s throw from the Ohio State campus. LJ Scott is from Hubbard in northeastern Ohio. Monty Madaris and Shane Jones are from Cincinnati, while twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell are from the Cleveland area. In total, there are 28 players from Ohio on the Michigan State roster.
Head coach Mark Dantonio is rooted in Ohio. He grew up in Zanesville, about 60 miles east of Columbus, and his coaching staff has plenty of Ohio connections as well. Several, like Dantonio, worked at one time or another at Ohio State.
When the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes come to East Lansing on Saturday, there will be more than just Big Ten familiarity.
“A little bit of extra motivation on this end,” said Dantonio, who was the Ohio State defensive coordinator from 2001-03 and helped the Buckeyes win the 2002 national title before taking his first head coaching job at Cincinnati.
Michigan State and Ohio State have split their last four meetings, including last season’s 17-14 win by Michigan State in Columbus. Dantonio’s teams are 3-4 against the Buckeyes, with only one of the games being a blowout (Ohio State won 45-7 in 2008). Ohio State owns a 4-point advantage, 135-131, in the other six games.
Many programs have struggled against Ohio State over the years. Why has Michigan State succeeded in going toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes under Dantonio?
“The amount of Ohio guys we’ve got coming from Ohio to Michigan State,” said Scott, who had 58 yards on 13 carries against the Buckeyes last season. “At the end of the day, when it comes time to play, it means a lot to all of these Ohio kids that are on the team. We know how they are over there. In our little corner, we know how they are over there. That’s the reason we came over here. We try to take it to them and say ‘We ain’t missing anything.’”
Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor is from Lima but grew up a Notre Dame fan. That’s his father’s influence. His mother and her side of the family were Buckeyes. He’ll make his second consecutive start against Ohio State on Saturday. He started the game last season and completed 7 of 12 passes for 89 yards and 1 touchdown while splitting time with Damion Terry.
“It’s been tremendous to have some of my die-hard cousins and best friends cheer for Michigan State when we play the Buckeyes,” O’Connor said. “I know it’s hard for them. I’ve told the story before, but some of them even wore my jersey when we were on offense last year and then took it off when we were on defense or I wasn’t on the field.”
Michigan State co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman coached the offensive line and was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator from 2001-2011. He coached with Dantonio and against him on the Ohio State sideline before joining Dantonio’s staff in 2013.
“The most important part of me being at Ohio State was coach (Jim) Tressel. That’s why I went there in the first place. I left the NFL to go there,” Bollman said. “It certainly was a tremendous football program and has been for a lot of years but mostly, for me, it’s all about the people that I’m with. It’s the same way back then and it will be that way for a while.”
Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is the nephew of the former Ohio State head coach.
The connections between the teams and the states are many. They’ve helped quietly build this rivalry into one of the Big Ten’s best, despite the different seasons Michigan State and Ohio State are having this year.
“I don’t think it really matters where you’re from,” Frey said. “This has been a big game the past few years, us being two of the top teams on our side of the Big Ten. I don’t think it really matters where you’re from. You come in with a different mindset to this game because you know it’s going to be a physical game. You know that they’re going to come in here and they want to win just like we do. It’s going to be a fight.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo