EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -At least a piece of first place in the Big Ten is at stake when Ohio State and Michigan State square off Saturday.
For the 12th-ranked Buckeyes, it's the usual routine: big game, high stakes.
For the rebuilding and 20th-ranked Spartans, games such as this have been anything but routine.
``This is the biggest game I think this senior class has played in since we've been here,'' said MSU defensive lineman Justin Kershaw, a Columbus native and one of 24 Spartans from Ohio. ``We still have a long way to go, but to see where we came from in two years is a great feeling. We're going to have to really take advantage of this opportunity.''
nt Mark Dantonio. The Spartans are off to their best start since 2003 and a victory over the Buckeyes would make them serious contenders for a Big Ten title. It could even push Michigan State to the fringe of the national title race.
Ohio State (6-1, 3-0) is hoping to stay on course for a fourth straight conference title and still holding out hopes of a third straight national championship game appearance. The Spartans have been little more than a step to be climbed for the Buckeyes in their decade of dominance. Ohio State has won six straight in the series.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer remembers Spartans fans may have been outnumbered in their own stadium by the end of Ohio State's 38-7 victory in 2006. A few weeks later, John L. Smith was fired as the Spartans' coach and eventually Dantonio was lured away from Cincinnati to replace him.
``It's up to us,'' Hoyer said. ``This could be a program win and it's going to be hard, it's going to be tough, but you know what to expect when you play against Ohio State.''
The Buckeyes have said all the right things this week, acknowledging there's some big game feel to this weekend because the winner will continue to have at least a share of the Big Ten lead with No. 3 Penn State.
As defending champions, the Big Ten title belongs to the Buckeyes until Michigan State, Penn State or somebody else gets good enough to supplant them.
mething that we discuss every week because when you're the person holding the trophy, there's only (one) way to get the trophy and that's to take it from them,'' Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. ``So every week that's what we face. This week we're facing a very good football team with those intentions in mind.''
The Buckeyes have issues to resolve if their string of important games is going to continue.
Ohio State ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total offense at 321 yards per game. Tailback Chris ``Beanie'' Wells missed a few games because of a foot injury, and freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor is searching for his comfort zone. The offensive line is taking some heat.
The question in Columbus: When's it going to click?
``Well, we're not - I hate to say it, we're not executing,'' Tressel said. ``I wish there were something different than that.''
Michigan State is on guard against both Wells and Pryor, despite the Buckeyes' sluggish performance. The Spartans give up about 16.7 points per game but haven't faced an offense with this much potential since a season-opening loss at California.
Michigan State's preference on offense is to pound the ball with Javon Ringer, the nation's second-leading rusher at 158.9 yards per game. Ringer leads the nation with 247 carries and 1,112 yards.
game. The Buckeyes' defense has rebounded since their 35-3 loss at Southern Cal last month, allowing 12.75 points per game since.
Tressel said it takes a ``whole bunch of helmets'' up by the line of scrimmage to stop Ringer, but he's also concerned about Hoyer's ability to exploit defenses that focus too much on the run.
Michigan State's last victory in the series came in 1999, when Dantonio was an assistant under Nick Saban in East Lansing.
The Spartans finished 7-6 in Dantonio's first season as head coach to regain a measure of respect in the conference.
``Now we have to continue to take the next steps in building that foundation,'' Dantonio said. ``We're playing a very good Ohio State team. I'd like to think we're a pretty good football team right now, so we'll see.''
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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