After Michigan State dashed Ohio State’s shot at a Big Ten title last season, some Buckeyes aren’t sure whether or not to label the Spartans a true rival.
But they can agree an upcoming matchup with Michigan State is an important game.
The earlier showdown came on Dec. 7, 2013, in the Big Ten Championship Game, with a win likely sealing OSU’s spot in the BCS National Championship Game and — at worst — a ticket to the Rose Bowl. But instead, Michigan State came away with a 34-24 victory, sending the Buckeyes to their Orange Bowl loss to Clemson as the Spartans topped Stanford in Pasadena, Calif.
Now the two teams are scheduled to face off once again, 11 months and a day after the Spartans’ triumph.
But as the Buckeyes prepare to take on Michigan State on Saturday at 8 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich., recent history has brought up a question of whether OSU vs. Michigan State is a rivalry, and the answers vary depending on who you ask.
OSU coach Urban Meyer — in his third year with the program after growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio — said he has memories of the “10-year war” between Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines.
“We have one rival here,” Meyer said Monday, referring to Michigan.
But he added while Michigan State might not be the Buckeyes’ big rival, the upcoming matchup is of the utmost importance nonetheless.
“What’s happened in this situation is you have an excellent team,” he said of the Spartans. “After watching them on film, they’re a great team. And they stand in the way of (the) Big Ten championship. They stood in the way last year and we failed.”
Now with that failure in mind, some OSU players have been put in a position to decide whether a potential rivalry with the Spartans carries the same weight as a rivalry born long before any player on the Buckeyes’ roster.
Junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker said both Michigan and Michigan State fall under the same category in his mind.
“I view them both as rivals, personally,” he said Monday.
He added much of the importance surrounding Saturday’s showdown stems from the Buckeyes’ inability to win last season.
“I know me personally and every guy on the team has been looking forward to this,” Decker said. “They’ve had this date circled since the game last year, so there’s a lot at stake.”
But while Decker called it a rivalry, senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said playing Michigan State doesn’t hold the same significance as a matchup with the Wolverines. Instead, he said the importance of the game comes down to what it means for the Buckeyes’ season going forward.
“There is a little added intensity, we understand that it’s a pretty pivotal game in our season,” Bennett said Monday. “They are the highest-ranked opponent we have had all year and it kind of is a deciding factor of how the season is going to go.”
With the Spartans currently ranked No. 7 and the Buckeyes slotted at No. 13, Bennett stressed that the matchup is significant, but not because of what happened in Indianapolis in December.
“This game is important because we still have a lot of postseason dreams and beating Michigan State is vital on that path,” he said. “I think that’s why this game is important.”
But even though he said it’s still important, Bennett said there’s a different feeling around OSU when Michigan — not Michigan State — is next up on the schedule.
“There’s a different feel when you go play the team up north, just because it’s a rivalry and it’s been a rivalry for so long,” he said. “When you just go into a big game, it’s a different kind of importance of winning that game.”
Decker — who has been part of two OSU victories against Michigan in his career, but just one against Michigan State to go with last year’s loss — said he sees the Spartans as a rival because of that history, but added it might not be on the same level as Michigan.
“There’s a lot of history behind the Ohio State-team up north rivalry, so I don’t think you can necessarily say that that’s on the same level,” Decker said. “But for me personally, in the experiences that I’ve had as a player, I’ve got a bitter feeling toward (the Spartans).”
One thing that could set the two rivalries — or not-rivalries — apart comes down to the simple words the Buckeyes use to describe each team. While coaches and players alike have been trained to replace Michigan with some variation of “the team up north,” there’s not a set standard when it comes to the Spartans.
Decker said saying Michigan State is fine — although he didn’t say it himself — but added that Michigan can only be used when State follows.
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry — who later used the words Michigan State — said there could be a more creative approach when it comes to referring to the Spartans.
“I’m not sure what the rules are about that, so I will just call them ‘the team up north’ State right now,” he joked.
As for Bennett, he had a quick answer when asked how he refers to the Buckeyes’ next opponent.
“Michigan State?” Bennett inquired. “Yeah, it’s Michigan State.”