When Mark Dantonio took over at Michigan State in 2007, his staff studied what Kirk Ferentz had done at Iowa, and what Barry Alvarez had done at Wisconsin.
“They did it the hard way,” Dantonio said this week. “They had been down a little bit at one point, built it back up, had a consistent winning program and stability and continuity.”
Now, Dantonio’s No. 8 Spartans are getting ready to host No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday in a marquee kickoff to the Big Ten’s conference schedule.
The Badgers have enjoyed continued success the past decade, but as second-year Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said, “We’re trying to emulate what Michigan State’s doing. That’s the bar we’re trying to reach.”
Both fan bases are enjoying sustained success. As the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein noted, there has yet to be a Big Ten championship game that didn’t include either the Badgers or the Spartans.
They squared off in the first one, with the Badgers pulling out a three-point win in 2011. And both teams have been back to Indianapolis twice since, with Wisconsin winning (2012) and losing (2014), and Michigan State winning twice (2013 and 2015).
Over the past seven seasons, the Spartans are 67-16, with three Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl victory, a Cotton Bowl victory and last year’s trip to the College Football Playoff.
It looked as if they might take a step back after losing six first-team All-Big Ten players from last year’s team, including quarterback Connor Cook. They opened with an underwhelming 28-13 victory over Furman, and it was fair to wonder how new QB Tyler O’Connor would fare last week at Notre Dame.
But Dantonio had a bye week to get ready for the Irish. The Spartans went into South Bend as eight-point underdogs and built a 29-point lead, holding on for a 36-28 victory.
Michigan State had 250 rushing yards, compared to 57 for Notre Dame, and controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes. Nobody should be surprised. The Spartans are 6-1 in their past seven games against ranked opponents.
“I’m not a big rant-and-rave guy beforehand,” Dantonio said. “I just tell guys, ‘Hey, you got to get yourself ready. You better be ready to play because you’ll be tested.’ ”
Dantonio is nothing if not intense, so it’s not like his low-key pregame approach lulls players to sleep.
“There are other guys jumping around,” he said. “I say, ‘Save all that for the game.’ They get themselves all tired out before the game.”
Playing at home, Dantonio will have his team ready for its first game against Wisconsin since 2012. The Badgers knocked off LSU in the season opener but nearly stumbled last week as heavy favorites against Georgia State.
The Badgers plan to give redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook his first career start at quarterback after his impressive showing off the bench last week. The lefthander looked very fluid on a variety of passes, completing eight of 12 passes with a touchdown, as the Badgers overcame a stunning four-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
Wisconsin is banged up. Talented tailback Corey Clement is questionable because of an ankle injury. But the Badgers are so good on defense, they should be in every game, even with an unrelenting schedule that brings Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska in their next four games.
To survive that stretch, and stay in the Big Ten West title hunt, Wisconsin will indeed need to “emulate Michigan State,” with Dantonio’s consistent steely-eyed focus.
• Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said a 10-game Big Ten schedule is “inevitable.” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald say they’d prefer that to this year’s nine-game schedule, with four at home and five on the road. Along with Nebraska’s Mike Riley, these coaches want uniformity throughout the Power Five. SEC and ACC teams have eight conference games, while the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 have nine. “I really believe the data points [for the College Football Playoff] should be the same,” Fitzgerald said.”
• The Gophers play at Penn State next week, and the Nittany Lions have been decimated with injuries on defense.
After losing middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White to a torn ACL, Penn State could be without all three starting linebackers Saturday at Michigan. James Franklin’s squad ranks 12th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 176.3 yards per game.
• Riley got a much-needed win over Oregon but admitted that the Cornhuskers must be better moving forward. The view here is the jury’s still out on Nebraska, which is a potential upset victim heading into Saturday night’s game at Northwestern.
JOE CHRISTENSEN'S BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (3-0): J.T. Barrett & Co. handed Oklahoma its ninth loss in 106 home games under Bob Stoops.
2. Michigan (3-0): Jabrill Peppers vs. Colorado: 9 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries, 204 all-purpose yards.
3. Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans fell to No. 6 in these rankings last week and took it out on Notre Dame.
4. Wisconsin (3-0): Hill-Murray grad Jack Cichy leads a stout Badgers defense in tackles with 5.7 per game.
5. Nebraska (3-0): The Huskers are plus-six in turnover margin after being minus-12 in difficult 2015 campaign.
6. Iowa (2-1): Hawkeyes play at Rutgers, then home against Northwestern before Oct. 8 game at Minnesota.
7. Gophers (2-0): Red-zone offense: nine trips, nine TDs. But the red-zone defense: six opponent trips, six TDs.
8. Penn State (2-1): Nittany Lions’ 106 points through three games is their most since 11-2 season in 2008.
9. Indiana (2-0): Sneaky tough test this week vs. 3-0 Wake Forest, which ranks 13th in scoring defense (12.7).
10. Maryland (3-0): Took two overtimes to top UCF squad that went 0-12 last year before hiring Scott Frost.
11. Northwestern (1-2): Beat Duke, but Blue Devils didn’t look like the team that won 27 games previous three years.
12. Rutgers (2-1): Scarlet Knights trailed New Mexico 21-0 and Howard 14-0 before rallying to win both games.
13. Illinois (1-2): Among Lovie Smith’s concerns: Illini rank 12th in Big Ten in third-down conversion rate (.342).
14. Purdue (1-1): Boilers had bye week to get over deflating loss to Cincinnati. Next up: Nevada and Maryland.
Marcus Fuller covers Gophers athletics for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org