The Mark Dantonio Era in East Lansing
Mark Dantonio won his 100th game in charge of the Michigan State Spartans last week by defeating #18 Washington State in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl. While it was a milestone win, the game itself was not particularly memorable. However, Dantonio’s tenure has been full of memorable moments. He took a moribund program with an inferiority complex to their tormentor 65 miles down the road and turned it into a consistent champion.
Remember that under John L. Smith, the Spartans were possibly more famous for blowing a lead in the rain (“Make Plays!”) against Notre Dame than they were for any recent victories. When Mark Hollis hired Dantonio away from Cincinnati, the man who had coached under Nick Saban and Jim Tressel became maybe the best to ever roam the sideline at Spartan Stadium. Here is Part 1 of a look back at 20 of his most memorable moments in charge of the Spartans, presented in chronological order.
In order to appreciate what Mark Dantonio has meant to this program, it is important to look back on what it was. When the Spartans blew a 10-point lead to Michigan at home on Nov. 3, 2007, in Dantonio’s first crack at the rivals, it was their sixth straight loss in the series and 12th out of 14. Michigan tailback Mike Hart uttered these famous words postgame: “I thought it was funny. They got excited. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball, and you let him get the lead, and then you come back and take it back.”
While the disrespect burned in the veins of Spartan fans, the sentiment was essentially true. Michigan had been MSU’s big, bullying brother for the better part of 80 years. So, when asked about Hart’s comments at a news conference three days later, Dantonio could have “taken the high road” and said that it was time to focus on the next opponent. Spartan coaches had been cowing to the demands and prestige of the Wolverines since the days of Fielding Yost. Not Mark Dantonio.
Snarling, but always in control of his anger, Dantonio said the words that would in many ways define the rivalry thenceforth: “I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. But just remember, pride comes before the fall… This game is an important game. So they want to mock us all they want to mock us, I’m telling them: it’s not over. So they can print that crap all they want all over their locker room. It’s not over. It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting… I’m going to be a coach here for a long time. It’s not over. It’s just starting.”
Dantonio is not known as an X’s and O’s wizard. He does not recruit 5-star athletes. What he does is instill a culture. Instead of running from the rivalry with Michigan, he has embraced it again and again. His confidence in the face of difficult odds inspired Spartan fans and players. “It’s not over, it’s just getting started” is a rallying cry.
Dantonio’s bluster after the loss to Michigan was a step, but without results, it meant nothing. Just think of the laughing stock that Lane Kiffin became when he bragged about singing “Rocky Top” after beating Florida, only to never get the opportunity. The Spartan program was mediocre, and 2007 was really no exception. After famously losing close games the season before to Notre Dame and Penn State, the Spartans were 1-5 in one-score games in 2007 going into Senior Day against the Nittany Lions.
MSU trailed 24-7 late in the third quarter. Then came the trick plays. A double reverse pass by wideout Ryan Allison to tight end Kellen Davis put the ball at the 1-yard line and cut the lead to 10. Jehuu Caulcrick bulldozed the Nittany Lion defense and drew them in, so that Brian Hoyer could use play action to find a wide-open Devin Thomas in the end zone.
After a Penn State field goal, Hoyer found Thomas again on play action to cut the lead to 3. On MSU’s next possession, they stalled but found new life through a fake punt. Caulcrick lined up as the H-back and took it 17 yards. Several plays later, he punched it in from a yard away. This gave the Spartans a lead with 4:08 remaining that they would not relinquish.
While the Spartans only finished the season 7-5, it was important for the program to be able to win a game in which they were the underdog and struggled during the game. All of the hallmarks of a Dantonio upset special were present on that night: raw emotion and chippiness, a flair for the dramatic, and fake kicks. Fake kicks would become a staple of the program, used to effectiveness against Notre Dame and Northwestern in 2010 (“Little Giants” and “Mouse Trap”) and Nebraska in 2013 (a fake field goal featuring a run by the late Mike Sadler). It was also Dantonio’s first Big Ten rivalry win, capturing the Land Grant Trophy. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
In the week leading up to the annual battle between the instate rivals, Michigan defensive end and Detroit native Brandon Graham guaranteed victory, saying “we don’t lose to State.” As has been well-documented, that was true at the time. Even on the first drive of the game, it was evident that things would be different.
Hoyer converted a 3rd and 16 on the opening series, then three plays later threw a slant to Blair White, which he took 61 yards into the south end zone of Michigan Stadium. The Spartans were unable to take advantage of two first half Wolverine turnovers, but Javon Ringer took an off-tackle run 64 yards to match Brandon Minor’s two touchdowns, as the teams headed into the locker room deadlocked at 14.
Michigan briefly took the lead on the opening series of the second half through a Steven Threet 2-yard run. The Spartans drove down the field, but were turned away at the goal line on 4th down. They had to rely on their defense to stem the fervent maize-and-blue crowd.
When they got the ball back, it was Hoyer’s 3rd down magic again, finding Mark Dell for 44 on a gorgeous strike on 3rd and 12. This set up a play action throw to Charlie Gantt two plays later, and it was tied at 21 entering the fourth quarter.
After the Spartans sacked Threet twice, they embarked on an 8-play, 82-yard drive. This culminated in Ringer waltzing into the end zone from two yards out to take the lead for good. Michigan’s next drive lasted one play, as Threet was intercepted by Chris L. Rucker. The Spartans added another touchdown for insurance, and the Spartans took the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to East Lansing for the first time since 2001.
Sure, the Spartans took advantage of a down Wolverines team (Michigan would finish the season 3-9 in Rich Rodriguez’s first season at the helm). But Dantonio had become the first MSU coach to win in Ann Arbor since Desmond Howard dropped the two-point conversion to win in 1990. Not even Nick Saban had done that. But Dantonio was here to stay. The Wolverines have, amazingly, only defended home field against MSU one time since.
It may seem that this list is heavy on the instate series with Michigan. This is for two reasons. First, the reality is that the first three years of Dantonio’s tenure were not rife with large-scale success. The program was, frankly, in disarray when he arrived. 7-6, 9-4, 6-7 were his first three seasons, complete with three bowl losses. Respectable, sure, but not there is a clear difference between those first three years and the eight that have followed.
There wasn’t a whole ton of celebration to go around in Dantonio’s first three seasons. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that. At Michigan State, you cannot plug-and-play five-star guys. It takes years of recruiting the right players, since you can’t get the blue-chippers. These are your proverbial diamonds in the rough. Oftentimes, Michigan State redshirts these athletes so they can get a little bit faster and stronger before taking the field. The Spartans have excellent coordinators and position coaches who put their teams in a position to succeed against better talent. But all of that cannot be built in one day. Dantonio didn’t promise to deliver 12-2 right off the bat- he knew it was just getting started.
The second reason Michigan is featured a lot is because, well, Spartan fans cannot stand the Wolverines. If you don’t live or spend time in Michigan, it may be hard to recognize the exact tenor of the rivalry. Some Michigan fans deny that the rivalry even exists. Hart’s comments two years earlier incensed Spartans everywhere, not just because Michigan had once again beaten MSU, but because they were indifferent about it. Ann Arbor’s points their gun south towards Columbus rather than west towards East Lansing. It is Michigan-Ohio State that is talked about as one of the sport’s great rivalries, not Michigan-Michigan State. So it is not just that Michigan State dislikes the Wolverines. The issue is that for 100 years, there was no validation.
MSU almost blew this game, losing a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead, but Chris L. Rucker intercepted a Tate Forcier pass in the overtime, and then freshman Larry Caper took the second play of their OT drive 23 yards to the house, and Spartan Stadium was euphoric.
Validation. Michigan could no longer dismiss the loss at home the season before as just a fluke. MSU had now beaten them two years in a row. Michigan may never give the Spartans the hatred they crave, but after 2009, it became impossible to pat them on the head. Mark Dantonio, even in a year where the team was not a championship contender, had delivered the victory.