EAST LANSING - For those hoping, assuming the Dantonio era reached a high-water mark in 2010 and 2011, you appear to be sadly mistaken.
The Spartans are squarely in November championship contention again, looking like the Legends Division leaders and best, heading into the final three games of the regular season.
And they're getting better. Not only this year, but possibly for years to come.
After a 29-6 bludgeoning of Michigan on Saturday, it appears that last year's 7-6 season was the exception. Now, the 8-1 Spartans seem headed for their third 10-win season in four years, and a possible return to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game and a shot at a Rose Bowl bid.
The Spartans tapped Michigan out with a self-sharpening defense that seems to trot out a new, ready-for-domination, redshirted underclassman every week. This time, it was sophomore second-string linebacker Ed Davis who registered 2.5 of the Spartans' seven sacks. His play symbolized the depth of the program, its defensive foundation, which will carry on into November, December and 2014.
Davis helped hold Michigan to 2-of-13 on third down and just 168 yards of total offense (278 yards below their per-game average).
The Dantonio & Narduzzi defense isn't merely great. It's just getting started.
That being said, with Narduzzi revealing this week that he believes he is ready to become a head coach some day soon, Michigan State needs to seriously consider pulling another Tom Izzo move, and set the course toward naming Narduzzi the head coach in waiting. Yeah, he's a little too brutally honest sometimes, but we can teach him to lie.
A great defensive coordinator is one of the most valuable, elusive commodities in intercollegiate athletics. When you have one, you don't let him jet off to become head coach at Big East Tech, even if you think he would eventually come back to MSU when Dantonio is done. Don't take the chance, Michigan State. The Spartans have a very good formula going right now, and they had better not reshuffle. MSU is a wealthy football program, but it's not a turn-key, natural power. It has taken 45 years to get back up near consistent Top 10 status, and it would be foolish to let any valuable parts get away.
Saturday, the Spartans didn't let Michigan QB Devin Gardner get away. They threw him for 68 yards worth of losses and a net rushing output of -46 for the day.
Gardner came into the game averaging 328 yards per game in total offense. He managed exactly 50 percent of that (164 yards of total offense) against the Spartans.
The Spartan defense seems to have crossed over from good to great. Meanwhile, the Spartan offense - led by a gutsy, strong-armed, play-making sophomore QB in Connor Cook and a nice assortment of underclass running backs, linemen and receivers - is making progress toward providing the type of complementary backing that could allow Michigan State to hang with a Top 5 Ohio State team in Indianapolis. A potential date with No. 3-ranked Oregon in Pasadena is as tough an assignment as there is in college football. But maybe the Spartans would be tough for the Ducks, too.
These are the things we're talking about today, after Saturday's demonstration. Challenging Ohio State and Oregon? The Spartans certainly aren't at that level right now. Are they? The notion doesn't seem as ludicrous as it would have in September when MSU took its seemingly-zany QB competition four games into the regular season.
Meanwhile, Dantonio is wise enough to sharpen everything toward Nebraska. Beat Nebraska in two weeks, and the Spartans can dream about the rest of it.
"We have a bye week and then Taylor Martinez, who has torched us the last couple years," said Spartan linebacker Max Bullough. "We haven't been able to beat Nebraska. So we have another challenge ahead of us. We are taking it week-by-week."
Adding A Chapter
Dantonio's legend grew by a few verses on Saturday. Perhaps more so than at any time in his career, he won this game with power, grace and humility. He did his post-game press conference with the same ski cap he wore on the sideline. Nothing fancy. The thing keeps his head warm. Functional. Daugherty used to wear a similar ski cap on the same Spartan Stadium sideline at this time of year. Daugherty would have loved this guy, Dantonio.
No need for a Frank Leahy fedora. No need to take a few minutes to re-do the hair or add make-up for the post-game press conference. Dantonio has a funny last name, but he isn't a Gucci coach. He's just a former free safety and math teacher from Zanesville, Ohio, preaching team defense, heads-up tackling and ball judgement in the deep part of the field.
Two years ago, they did it so well that they hurt Michigan's feelings when the beating came garnished with a side of penalty flags. Dantonio thought his program issued enough apologies and accepted the proper sentencing two years ago after that game. But this is the Michigan mechanism we're talking about. We have to drudge it all back up, because we can't talk about countdown clocks anymore, now that Michigan has one.
So Dantonio took the questions on Tuesday without spouting off, and merely advised that the officials needed to keep an eye on things, because "it goes on both ends." And he advised his players to contain their outrage.
"We talked all week about keeping the lion in the cage, just peaking at game time," Dantonio said. "Don't worry about all the things that are being said, just keep your mouth shut, get ready to play, start the game and finish stronger than when you started. We were going to let the lion out of the cage at 3:30 and that's what happened. We got stronger as the game continued.
"We just tried to stay out of all the issues with the UM-Michigan State rivalry, all the talk, and I think, for the most part, it was a pretty clean-played game. That was a positive to see."
On Saturday, Dantonio's team limited a hated rival and heretofore offensive power to -48 yards of rushing. Daugherty's teams did that to Notre Dame (-12), Ohio State (-22), Michigan (-39) in 1965. That '65 game against Notre Dame marked the first time in Irish football history that the Irish were held to negative yards rushing. ND went into that game ranked No. 2 in the country in rushing offense.
That Ohio State game marked the only time a Woody Hayes team was held to negative yards rushing.
As for this weekend's historical footnote, Michigan's "Team 134" is now responsible for the worst, single-game rushing output in school history - and it came at the hands of your Michigan State Spartans. Team 134 shouldn't feel bad. "Team 132," "Team 131," "Team 130" and "Team 129" each combined for zero victories against Michigan State. Anyone betting on "Team 135" next year at Spartan Stadium?
Still, those figures from 1965 were posted back when the blocking rules of the day almost forced teams to run the ball every down, whether they could get anything going or not. To hold a team full of nationally-ranked recruits to -48 yards rushing in 2013, while preventing a third straight opponent from crossing the goal line, in today's climate of 60-point games and inflated stat sheets, should cause a nation of college football followers to stop and take a look at what's going on here on Daugherty's sideline with this Nick Saban & Jim Tressel disciple.
After Dantonio won this one, the smiles of satisfaction were wide. But there wasn't a feeling of finality. This win wasn't a season-maker. It wasn't a prophetic finish line. He acted like he had been here before, which he has.
He could have boasted with bothered gruffness after this game. His 2011 team accomplished a great deal, but this week, all that they seemed to be remembered for was a pair of personal fouls by one player who is no longer in the program. The usual do-gooders pointed at Michigan State, and cried foul, 24 months later. If they couldn't re-play that game, maybe they could at least re-cast the Spartans as the villains they hope others will see them to be. And if that fails, write it in the sky or something, and then lie about it, and then lie about it again.
Dantonio had plenty to grandstand about. But rather than raise his voice, he took the intensity level down a notch, spoke more softly than at any press conference all year. His team had done the talking on the field, with their level of play. Now, reverting to his background as an educator, he didn't feel the need to spike the ball. In his most dominant moment as a head coach, he was benevolent, good-hearted, complimentary of the opponent.
And it probably drove Michigan fans nuts.
They would have rather seen him take off his shoe and go Nikita Kruschev on the podium. After a game like this, they wanted him to do something classless, say something unsporting, or make some outlandish prediction, so that they could point and yell, "see, they're the bad guys," to anyone in Washtenaw County still listening. Their delusional street preaching usually makes them feel better about themselves in times like this.
Instead, all they got was style and grace, to go with that ass kicking.
And a legend grows.
During the celebration on the field after the game, Dantonio pointed out into the stands. A camera caught his video image, and displayed it onto the huge Spartan Stadium jumbotron screen. The crowd absolutely roared. Dantonio heard it, but didn't completely understand.
"I was pointing up to the stands to the fans and I thought that's why they were roaring," he said.
Then he was told they were cheering him, and not necessarily responding to his cheerleading.
"I'm humbled to be here with all this at Michigan State as the head football coach," he said. "It's humbling."
Beating Michigan is no longer a Gatorade shower moment. Darqueze Dennard was asked if the players considered dousing Dantonio.
"We have one planned for him," Dennard said. "In Cali."
Bullough was asked if this game would last him the rest of his life, the way Kirk Cousins said his four-for-four would.
"We have a few more games left," Bullough said. "The Rose Bowl is going to last the rest of my life."
No Foreign Objects
Now that this one is over, Dantonio was asked again if he took it as a compliment that the opposition sought to match Michigan State's bullying prowess.
"If they could just say we play hard and play well and leave it at that," Dantonio said kindly.
That's not likely to happen. The Michigan culture yearns to find an alibi. But they don't have one this time.
There were no bad calls, no foreign objects, no trick photography, no plots by a guest time keeper, no hanging chads. The field wasn't improperly crowned. The grass held up nicely. The ball was wet for both teams, and it rained on both sidelines.
Michigan State played tougher, harder, smarter, better and cleaner than Michigan.
Dantonio almost had to apologize for it.
"We are not trying to go out there and bully anybody," Dantonio said. "We're not trying to do that. They've got big guys too. We're just trying to play. But we are going to play to win and we are going to play hard and we are going to play like I've been taught throughout my coaching career. We're going to play good defense. We're going to try to run the ball. We are going to try to physically win."
This time, Michigan State didn't give the Wolverines penalty flags for their tears. The Spartans have learned that some people not only keep track of personal fouls, but also recall them 24 months later if the scoreboard tells a sad story. In 2011, the Wolverine white-hatters pointed to the penalty flags as proof that they (the Wolverines) were still and always have been the good guys, in a pathetic cry out for sympathetic attention.
This time, Wolverine alibi chasers were not only left without material, they can't even claim that their general studies majors are better citizens.
They wanted to keep talking about the facemask crank of 2011, and they were praying that there would be another personal foul outrage to forward the fairy tale this time. But instead, ABC outed Taylor Lewan for the home viewers during Saturday's telecast. ABC ran a montage of Lewan's rule-breaking maneuvers, forcing Michigan fans to face the possibility that they weren't the good guys. Michigan had become everything Wolverine Fan thought Michigan State would be on this day - a light-hitting, soft-blocking, mask-twisting, fourth-place team.
Michigan thought they had a good team this year. They did some sky writing, did some chicken dancing. Have they learned nothing about pride and the fall?
Clean Michigan State 29, Less-Than-Clean Michigan 6. This must have seemed like football armageddon to them.
Michigan Fan knew the Wolverines hadn't played with physicality this year. But Michigan had a bye week prior to this game, and there were hopes that they could fix their leaks in those seven extra days, and restore their idea of order. Michigan was confident. Michigan players did all the talking about how they were going to be tougher in this game.
Then they came out of the tunnel. Did you catch this? They walked out of the tunnel in militaristic columns. Spartan players, who had run out of the tunnel a few minutes earlier and then stood on the sideline for the National Anthem, stood and watched as Michigan walked out, in rows, and columns with their elbows interlocked.
That's the first time I've ever seen a team walk out of a tunnel prior to college football game, rather than run. I asked around to the one or two Michigan fans that I'm on speaking terms with, and they don't remember seeing a Michigan team walk out of a tunnel like that before. This apparently was new … just for you, Michigan State.
The symbolism was unmistakeable. They were mimicking Michigan State's
phalanx walk, which is a regular part of the Spartans' pre-game warm-up. Each Saturday, midway through pre-game drills, the Spartans file into a phalanx formation and walk the end zone on their side of the field as an homage to the battle formation used in ancient Greek warfare.
What were the Wolverines trying to accomplish with this walk-out routine? Were they mocking Michigan State's phalanx? Suffering from a case of phalanx envy? Were they trying to show that they were ready for battle in this football coliseum? Nice complex.
Their program is the one that always tries to take offense to being disrespected, and they pulled this number?
I mean, George Blaha rushed for more yards than the Wolverines on Saturday. And they want to come out and mock Michigan State's phalanx? Is that how you took it? I'm confused. I need subtitles for this dramedy.
That walk-out seems silly now. The Wolverines are really becoming a bumbling caricature of themselves. ESPNU should replay this game with a laugh track.
At least Michigan had the taste to leave the McDonaldland uniforms at home this time.