Michigan State may be champions in four straight meetings with rival Michigan but all is not hunky dory in East Lansing these days. The Spartans' 4-3 record has disappointed fans and has left MSU dying for a win to re-enter the Legends Division race.
"It's total desperation time," Detroit Free Press beat writer Joe Rexrode said. "If they lose, their chances are completely gone. Even if they win out, they need Iowa to lose three games, but right now, no one is even thinking about that because the immediacy of the situation is Michigan State needs a win badly."
With a loss to Iowa in double overtime last weekend, State fell to 1-2 in the conference, and in fifth place in the Legends. The Green and White do not control their own destiny, but with matchups against Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern remaining, Michigan State can be a factor if it wins out.
That's a big 'if' for a team that has struggled terribly on offense all year and has been susceptible to the big play defensively, though the defense has played well enough to win every game.
"The most important thing is we don't split this football team into offense and defense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "That's always a challenge when you lose a football game. But we've got good chemistry, good leadership on our football team, and we'll be ready to play."
Dantonio loathes Michigan and certainly is mocked by U-M fans that believe his persona reeks of inferiority, but he's a winner, becoming only the second Spartan boss in program history to win four of his first five against the Wolverines. And because of his success, and because of his attitude - perhaps best characterized as 'thump-my-chest,' unapologetic and adversarial - the Green and White revere him, as do many in the local media.
However, even Dantonio has come under fire this season, criticized by the fringe (and even the moderate) as a season with so much promise has unraveled and threatens to go downhill even faster with one more loss.
"The last two seasons have been so good that expectations started getting out of control, and when you don't win at that consistently high rate, people get nasty," Rexrode said.
"Pressure is good. It helps prepare you, keeps you on edge, keeps you mentally sharp," said Dantonio, doing his best to turn the negative attention into a positive. "I think this game can be a defining moment for us. I think it could be a rallying point or a moment where we can start going in the other direction.
"We have a very, very small margin of error right now and we need help as we move through this.
"Usually you get help. The conference itself is very competitive. There's a lot of parity. I think there's a lot of opportunity for players to play well and teams to rise up and win against anybody really."
Michigan is hungry for this win, to put an end to its longest losing streak in this series' history, and to reclaim what many Maize and Blue fans believe is rightfully U-M's - top-dog status in the state - but Michigan State needs this win to stay afloat, knowing one more defeat could sink them.
"It would be a very big win for us just in terms of where we're at [in the conference race]," Dantonio said. "I do think if we take care of business, we've got opportunities ahead of us. But we need to take care of business first."