AP Sports Writer
Over the past few seasons under coach Mark Dantonio, Michigan State has become one of the Big Ten’s top programs, while embracing seemingly every opportunity to use perceived slights as motivation.
Now the Spartans are in the Big Ten championship game — and they’re favored by a few points over an undefeated Iowa team.
Maybe it’s the Hawkeyes who should be clamoring about disrespect.
“They’re undefeated. They’re 12-0,” Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. “They’ve beaten some really good opponents, pretty good teams, this year. I don’t know what’s going on in their locker room. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But I’m sure they have similar thoughts that go through their head that we’ve had.”
When the fifth-ranked Spartans face the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes in Saturday’s showdown, a berth in college football’s playoff will almost certainly be at stake. Yet this isn’t what many fans have in mind when they think about the glamor teams of the Big Ten. Ohio State, the defending national champion, lost to Michigan State this year. So did Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. Iowa beat Wisconsin and Nebraska, the brand names of the West Division.
Michigan State-Iowa is a blue collar matchup between programs that still have to fight a bit for recognition and respect.
“We’re two programs that like to play physical football,” Iowa offensive lineman Austin Blythe said. “They’re going to play the full 60, and they’ll take it into overtime if they have to. Just two really good programs that respect each other and understand what they bring to the table and understand that it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.”
The spread offense craze never really caught on at Michigan State and Iowa. The Spartans do have an outstanding quarterback in Cook, but despite his pro potential and Michigan State’s fine season, he doesn’t appear to have gotten much traction in the Heisman Trophy race.
The Spartans are making their third appearance in the Big Ten title game in five years, but they rarely make major news on national signing day. Iowa’s 2015 recruiting class was ranked 51st in the nation by Scout.com, right between Syracuse and Rutgers. Maybe this year’s run will help the Hawkeyes attract more top prospects, but it’s hard to envision them recruiting the kinds of classes that routinely end up at Ohio State or Alabama.
The Spartans (11-1) have reached 11 wins for the fifth time in the past six years, and coach Mark Dantonio says in some ways, he tried to pattern Michigan State’s system after Iowa’s.
“They come to play every game,” Dantonio said. “Iowa, they always had a workmanlike attitude. They always went to work, they always played people tough, they always seemed to win consistently. They were very well coached, their players played very firm up front on both sides of the ball. That’s who we wanted to be.”
This will be one big matchup without much pregame animosity. Michigan State and Iowa haven’t played each other since 2013, and although the Hawkeyes handed the Spartans their only regular-season loss in 2010, that game feels like a long time ago.
Michigan State has a rivalry with Michigan and has played big games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans don’t have much of a reason to dislike Iowa — although that could always change once this weekend’s clash kicks off.
“You need to understand that you’re playing for a championship,” Michigan State defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “We’ve competed against those guys and they’ve been great competitors, but at the end of the day you have to understand that this is another goal that we’re trying to obtain as a team, and Iowa is another team that we have to face that’s in the way.”