INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called the Big Ten championship game "a life moment."
Win or lose, Dantonio and his players will remember Saturday night for the rest of their lives. They hope it ends with a trophy and a guaranteed trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season.
Dantonio was relaxed and often philosophical during his pregame news conference Friday as he reflected on his team's journey back to Lucas Oil Stadium after a disappointing 7-6 campaign in 2012. The Spartans aren't strangers to this stage after appearing in the inaugural Big Ten title game in 2011.
As MSU's bus turned toward Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday, "it became a reality," Dantonio said.
Here are some notes, quotes and more from Dantonio's media session:
Dantonio repeatedly praised Braxton Miller, calling the Ohio State quarterback "a magician" and "the X-factor." Miller is the most physically dangerous quarterback the Spartans have faced this season, mainly because of his tailback-like running skills and his ability to turn bad/broken plays into great ones. "You can know what Ohio State is doing, be right on top of it, do what you do to stop it that particular time, but he can create and make it a good play. We have to be able to defend the loose plays."
Quarterback Damion Terry and wide receiver Trey Kilgore played Miller on Michigan State's scout team. Terry did an especially good job, Dantonio said, and made some big plays as the Spartans went full-contact in practice. "But he's still he's not Braxton Miller yet," Dantonio said.
Dantonio thinks Michigan State is a BCS bowl team win or lose, and he doesn't regret sitting on the ball late in games rather than running up the score. The Spartans are the lowest-ranked major-conference 1-loss team at No. 10. "I just know if they're 12‑1, we'll jump over some of those other teams based on who we're playing," he said.
Dantonio speaks occasionally with his former bosses and coaching mentors Nick Saban and Jim Tressel, the former Ohio State coach. Asked about Tressel's rooting interests Saturday night, Dantonio smiled. "I don't know if he has green on or not tomorrow night, but maybe." Wonder if Tressel has a Christmas-colored sweater vest picked out for the game.
Wisconsin clearly was more comfortable than Nebraska heading into last year's championship game, in part because the Badgers had been here the year before. Dantonio hopes his team is loose and focused Saturday night, but the Spartans won't be intimidated by the stage. "My feeling when we saw the stadium was, 'OK, we've been there,'" Dantonio said. "It wasn't, 'Wow, here we are, what are we doing here?' It's like, 'We've been here, we need to take the next step here.'"
Dantonio was Michigan State's secondary coach in 1998 when the Spartans beat then-No. 1 Ohio State, handing the Buckeyes their only loss of the season. He recalled MSU's growing confidence as the game went along and the consecutive blitzes used to finish off Ohio State. Although it was a big win, Saturday night's game has added significance "because it sends you someplace."
Michigan State co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman faces Ohio State for the first time since spending 10 years as the Buckeyes' offensive coordinator under Tressel. Although Bollman's approval rating in Columbus might be lower than Jay Jacobs', Dantonio's affinity for the veteran coach is clear. "He's like a brother to me," Dantonio said. "He's a foxhole guy. He's been there with you through thick and thin. Means the world to us."
Although last year's Spartans team struggled to finish games, its resiliency in rebounding from tough losses set the stage for this year's run, Dantonio said. It's why after the season, at the team banquet, he talked to the returning players about being "the ones" this season. But for Dantonio, the opportunity Saturday night has bee a long time coming. "This didn't start last February," he said. "This started on Nov. 26, 2006, when I became the head football coach at Michigan State."
Dantonio closed his news conference by quoting Muhammad Ali. "We're going to find out tomorrow how great we are."