During the Mark Dantonio era, the Big Ten’s real rivalry game was Michigan State vs. Ohio State.

Yeah, Michigan vs. Ohio State is a classic — or was — but the Wolverines’ futility against the Buckeyes became more a joke, rather than a real-deal rivalry. MSU vs. OSU meant that a Big Ten title was typically on the line.

The Wolverines couldn’t beat the Buckeyes, especially with all the chips on the table. But the Spartans could, and they did twice: in 2011 and in 2015, two of Dantonio’s finest seasons in East Lansing and two seasons that vaulted the Spartans into the national spotlight.

In 2011, Michigan State scored a 10-7 win over Ohio State, finishing 11-3 and winning the Outback Bowl. Beating Ohio State in 2011 also paved the way for the Spartans’ first back-to-back 10-win seasons in program history. The Buckeyes were a major hurdle, but they were overcame by an up-and-coming power. That helped set the stage for 4 more 10-win seasons under Dantonio.

In 2015, Michael Geiger entered Spartans’ folklore with a 41-yard game-winning field goal as time expired in Columbus, ending a 23-game winning streak for the Buckeyes and “Marking” MSU’s third Big Ten title under Dantonio.

As a general rule, at least recently, a win over Ohio State means much bigger and better things for the Spartans, who remain in the thick of the Big Ten race after a 40-21 win over Maryland. This Saturday in Columbus will be a program-defining outing for second-year coach Mel Tucker, who is in a race with MSU football history.

If Michigan State beats Ohio State, it’ll be 10-1 entering the season-finale against Penn State. The Nittany Lions won’t be a “gimme,” but if the Spartans top the Buckeyes, they’ll absolutely be heavy favorites to dispose of coach James Franklin’s squad.

Avoid a shootout if possible

History suggests that a high-scoring game Saturday wouldn’t be in MSU’s best interest.

Between 2011-2016, Michigan State went 3-3 vs. Ohio State. And even the losses — twice by a 17-16 score and the other 49-37 — let the Spartans know that they were right on the doorstep of the mighty Buckeyes. If Michigan State is for real this time around, it’ll find a way to avoid a high-scoring, stat-sheet stuffer vs. the Buckeyes.

That’s the best course of action for the Spartans, who lost 52-12 in 2020 and 34-10 in 2019. And actually, since that 17-16 loss in 2016, the past meetings have been ugly for MSU, which lost 48-3 in 2017 and 26-6 in 2018.

So yeah, a low-scoring affair would favor the No. 7 Spartans.

“A shootout – when I hear something like that it makes me want to vomit,” Tucker said during a recent media session. “I’m not in the shootout business. If it ends up being that, then it’s that … but that’s not the goal. We have goals on offense, defense and special teams that we need to hit — and those goals, defensively, don’t reflect shootout.”

Michigan State’s worst-in-the-nation passing defense better be on alert for Ohio State QB CJ Stroud, a Heisman contender and notorious stat machine. Stroud to Chris Olave might be the norm Saturday, or Stroud to Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Garrett Wilson. Those are 3 of  the top receivers in the nation.

Beating Ohio State in his second year would be a major accomplishment for Tucker, who, this year, became the quickest MSU coach to land in the top 10 of the Associated Press rankings.

Michigan State is one of only a handful of programs to be a legitimate College Football Playoff contender two times since the inception of the CFP system. A win over the Buckeyes would almost certainly guarantee a spot if the Spartans win out — vs. Penn State and then in the B1G championship game.

Tucker said Ohio State isn’t his program’s “measuring stick,” but it sure in the hell was for Dantonio, and it was for MSU — because beating Ohio State meant that it wasn’t only a big-time Big Ten team, it meant that it was a national power.