EAST LANSING - The last time Mark Dantonio was associated with a team that was perfect through eight games was 2002, when he served as defensive coordinator for an Ohio State team that went on to win the National Championship.
No one is suggesting that Michigan State has the overall talent base of that Buckeye title team. But Dantonio does see some common characteristics.
"One thing about that (Ohio State) team is we found out how to win close games," Dantonio said during Sunday night's weekly press briefing. "All the games were very close, even starting with the fourth game against Cincinnati."
That Buckeye team beat Purdue with a deep pass on fourth-and-long, for instance.
"It gave you a sense of confidence that you could come back, guys would make plays down the stretch, and that's what's happening with our football team right now," Dantonio said. "We are making plays down the stretch and I think that speaks to our players' leadership on the football field."
The latest example: Michigan State's comeback from a 17-0 deficit to beat Northwestern, 24-27, Saturday in Evanston. As was the case at Ohio State, Dantonio is starting to see some consistent character development in the Spartans.
"Remember back to the Wisconsin game, Kirk Cousins takes us down the field in that game for the game winner. This week, he does the exact same thing," Dantonio said.
Not to mention the punt fake for a first down during a key drive late in the third quarter which eventually helped Michigan State cut Northwestern's lead to 24-21.That play, of course, was reminiscent of the Spartans' fake field goal which beat Notre Dame in overtime.
Michigan State has survived shaky first quarters against Illinois, Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin during its 8-0 start.
Any positive commonality there?
"Our defense comes to play the entire second half," Dantonio said. "We came out and we played passionate. When you do that and you play with enthusiasm, we said all week long we were going to have to play enthusiastically and have momentum, and I think we got that in the second half. I think our players felt it when we got to 17-14 and we kept moving. Not that they backed away from it. They were playing very yard, credit Northwestern, but our players caught fire."
Dantonio said experience is the key to building these characteristics.
"It's hard to teach because there are only so many opportunities you get to play games but I think you can learn it over the course of a career," Dantonio said. "Look at last year's games, Kirk was a first-year starting quarterback, and you look at (Brian) Hoyer as he developed in his first year. We lost a lot of close games. That next year in '08, we won a lot of close games because of Brian Hoyer. I think the same thing is holding true now. We win a lot of close games because our quarterback play is very, very high. I think he believes in himself. I think the players believe in him. Our coaches believe in him and you see the results of that.
"When you look at our four years here, the experience of a quarterback playing under center can't be over-estimated."
MSU No. 5 In The BCS
For the second straight Sunday, Dantonio indicated that he had no plans of watching ESPN's weekly Bowl Championship Series rankings show. Last week, Dantonio said he stayed away from BCS talk.
"I didn't read the newspaper and I didn't turn on the TV," Dantonio said. "That's basically it. I spent the time getting ready for Northwestern."
The Spartans jumped ahead of Oklahoma and LSU in this week's BCS rankings and landed at No. 5, trailing No. 1 Auburn, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Boise State and No. 4 TCU.
Michigan State is one of only four unbeaten teams from a major conference. Pundits and fans will be discussing scenarios by which the Spartans might be able to land in the National Championship game. Dantonio isn't interested in that kind of talk right now, but he doesn't disparage it.
"When you have success, good things are going to happen and people are going to talk about it (the BCS) and everything and all of that is good as long as you stay focused on the next challenge," Dantonio said. "We certainly can't look past any of these last four football teams, especially Iowa. This very next one will be a big challenge for us. The games have been very close the last three years (between Michigan State and Iowa). We'll be excited to go play."
The Skandalaris Center, however, is a much happier working environment when the Spartans are winning.
"Around here? Yeah," Dantonio said, when asked if he sensed a buzz in the MSU football offices. "Any time you win, you walk a little lighter. I don't care if you are 7-3 or 8-0, when you win a football game, it's a big challenge, a lot goes into it and people work extremely hard to do that. So when you win, you are going to carry yourself a little better."
Chasing The QB
Michigan State will not have to chase a mobile quarterback on Saturday when No. 5-ranked Michigan State visits No. 18 Iowa (3:30 p.m., ABC). This ends a stretch of three consecutive games in which the Spartans were faced with the challenge of containing speedy QBs such as Michigan's Denard Robinson and Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase and shifty Dan Persa of Northwestern.
Persa gained 81 yards rushing against Michigan State, mostly on impromptu scrambles. He lost 35 yards on eight sacks, for a net of 46 for the game.
"The quarterback scrambled (for gains) 10 times, and we had eight sacks, so that means he's on the run 18 times," Dantonio said. "So we were getting pressure, we brought pressure.
"The second half, we came out and played very, very well defensively and sort of caught fire as a football team," Dantonio said.
MSU held Northwestern to only one touchdown drive in the second half.
"And credit the quarterback for scrambling a lot on that one," Dantonio said.
Persa converted a pair of third down plays by tucking and running during that TD drive, and also scored from 6-yards out on an improvised scramble.
"When you look at that football game, you have two different halves," Dantonio said. "You have a half where I think the momentum swung with Northwestern, not that we weren't playing hard, we were playing very hard. But Persa making plays, those guys making plays, up 17-0.
"When you look at us down the stretch, Cousins is 7-of-8 for almost 100 yards (on the last drive), and Keith Nichol has a big catch on third-and-15, and the big throw and catch to B.J. Cunningham.
"Our guys just kept playing. I thought we played very well in the back end. Tyler Hoover had a very good game. And here we are, 8-0."
Dantonio: Special Teams Key At Iowa
Dantonio often talks about the slim margin of error often determining winners and losers on Saturday. Sunday night, Dantonio cannot let the Hawkeyes gain momentum via the kicking game.
"I look at the two big games that I've watched on TV, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game and then the Missouri-Oklahoma game, there were two big kickoff returns by the home team playing a higher-ranked team at that point in time," Dantonio said. "We have to play well on special teams this week. We've got to win the special teams battle."
Michigan State uncharacteristically allowed punt returns of 14 and 16 yards to Northwestern, along with kickoff returns of 21 and 25 yards. Wind seemed to knock down the ball and put the coverage units out of sorts on all four occasions, but Dantonio wants no excuses.
"We made a big play on special teams," Dantonio said in reference to the "Mousetrap" punt fake, "but we did not play as well (on special teams) as we had. We played hard, but not as well as we have had."
Ace kickoff coverage specialist TyQuan Hammock registered a heavy hit on MSU's last kickoff of the game. Hammock, a 255-pound former linebacker who moved to fullback in September, has 12 tackles on special teams this year.
"TyQuan has just been a great special teams player for us all year long, on the kickoff team in particular," Dantonio said. "He's on the kickoff return team. He's a very active player and goes 100 miles an hour, so he has done great."
Meanwhile, sophomore kicker Dan Conroy missed his first field goal of the year on Saturday during Michigan State's nightmarish first half, pushing a 38-yarder wide right.
Conroy had trouble with the wet grass of Ryan Field prior to the game. He slipped on his plant foot during one attempt while practicing during pre-game warm-up.
"I did not know that (he had fallen during a pre-game attempt) until the bus ride on the way home that Dan Conroy was practicing his kick, or warming up and went under," Dantonio said. "So it probably did affect him a little bit. He will be able to bounce back. It sort of takes a little bit of pressure off of him as well."
Dantonio has been complimented nationally for his calm demeanor when Michigan State was down 17-0, and his confident "We'll be all right" during a halftime interview with ABC.
"I think you can't get too emotionally down and you certainly have to play every play," Dantonio said Sunday night. "But you know, I have to keep my pulse under control, I guess."
Dantonio broke into a trot when heading to midfield for a post-game handshake with Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. That part might have been instinct.
It was Dantonio's first full game on the sideline since suffering a heart attack in the early morning hours after the Notre Dame game on Sept. 19.
"It helps to be emotional on the field, on the sideline it helps to be emotional at times but you had better be able to step back and look at things clearly too," he said.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi customarily heads from the press box to the sideline midway through the second half. The fiery Narduzzi offers some
"I just think it gives everybody a little extra spark," Dantonio said of Narduzzi's weekly sideline move. "And by then it's a little bit more of a hands-on game in terms of calling it from the sideline one way or the other, a little more hands-on than stepping back away from it."
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