Ohio State was so successful during former linebacker Joshua Perry’s four seasons with the team that it lost only four games.
Two of the setbacks were against Michigan State.
For most of this decade, the Buckeyes have rolled their competition in the Big Ten, winning more than 85 percent of the time against teams from the conference and reasserting themselves as a national powerhouse.
But the Spartans, who visit Columbus for a prime-time matchup Saturday, have been the biggest pest, defeating them three times since 2011. No other Big Ten team has upended Ohio State more.
“They've kind of been the thorn in the side for really good seasons,” said Perry, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network.
Perry was a sophomore in 2013 when the Buckeyes were ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, in position to advance to the national championship game, until they lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game. That was when the conference was aligned into Leaders and Legends divisions.
Two seasons later, the Spartans topped Ohio State in a downpour in the 'Shoe, an upset that kept the Buckeyes from pursuing a second consecutive national title. In an interview with The Dispatch earlier this year, Urban Meyer described that as the most painful loss of his seven-year coaching tenure at Ohio State.
In the fallout, it was Michigan State that captured the Big Ten East Division and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes, off to a 5-0 start under first-year coach Ryan Day, hold similar playoff ambitions as they prepare for another grudge match with the Spartans, who are 4-1.
There has been one common denominator in the recent games between the teams: Mark Dantonio pacing Michigan State’s sideline.
Hired to lead the program in 2007, Dantonio, a former Cincinnati coach and Ohio State assistant, built teams that relied heavily on the Buckeye State, one of the more fertile recruiting grounds in the Midwest. On the current roster, 28 players list Ohio as their home state.
As high school players, many were overlooked by Ohio State, were considered more second-tier prospects, and never received a scholarship offer, raising the stakes for when they line up against the in-state power.
“We always got up for that game,” said Darien Harris, a Maryland native who was a linebacker for Michigan State from 2011 until 2015. “We always wanted to play for the players on our team that were from Ohio, whether they had an offer from Ohio State or whether they didn’t. It's always fun to play against the team that's in your home state. We definitely circled that game on our schedule.”
Harris, an analyst at various radio and TV stations in Michigan, recalled a particularly rousing speech from offensive lineman Donavon Clark before the 2015 upset. Clark, who was a senior and from Cincinnati, spoke in front of teammates at their pregame meal, a common ritual for the captains.
“It was always passionate,” Harris said. “It was always personal. That's the main thing.”
But it was more than hard feelings.
Dantonio’s teams have relied on a run-heavy offense reminiscent of Big Ten teams from previous decades, even amid the proliferation of spread offenses throughout college football. In an up-tempo era, where teams increased the pace of play, Michigan State went slow, finding an inefficiency.
The approach, more than others, resulted in success against the talented Buckeyes.
“The way that they would try to run the ball shortens the game,” Perry said. “So if your offense goes three-and-out a couple times, that really starts to bite you. Especially for a defense that can't get stops and can't get off the field, the game becomes shorter. You have less opportunities.”
During the 17-14 loss in 2015, the Buckeyes offense ran only 45 plays, its fewest in a game that season. When they lost 34-24 in the conference championship game in 2013, they ran 63 plays, fewer than all but two games that fall.
The Spartans weren't always easy to keep off the field. Their reliance on a pro-style, or traditional, offense, prompted the Buckeyes to spend more time in preparation for the game. Few other offenses incorporated a fullback, and many other looks were unfamiliar.
“You spend so much energy and effort on that during the week that it becomes tough,” Perry said. “Guys became more susceptible to making mistakes.”
The series, though, has tilted in Ohio State’s favor in recent seasons. It has won the past three games, including the last two by 45 and 20 points, respectively.
Michigan State has slipped from its perch to some degree. After posting double-digit wins in five of the first six seasons of the decade, capped by the College Football Playoff berth, the Spartans have won double-digit games only once in the past three seasons.
Dantonio’s program, though, would like to prove it remains capable of bedeviling the Buckeyes.