The Moments That Have Defined the Mark Dantonio Era
Mark Dantonio recently led the Michigan State Spartans to his 100th win, defeating the Washington State Cougars in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl. It was not a particularly memorable game, with the Spartans cruising to a 42-17 victory. However, during his tenure in East Lansing, Dantonio has overseen numerous great moments. He took a program that had been languishing in the middle of the Big Ten for the better part of two decades and built a champion. The former South Carolina defensive back engineered a trademark secondary and oversaw steady quarterback play.
This series intends to look back at Dantonio’s most defining moments on and off the field. In this installment, we recount a transitional period: the first three years are over, and now every player in green and white has been recruited by him personally rather than his predecessor. The Spartans took massive steps forward during this middle period. Let’s look back at the moments that are synonymous with it.
This was Dantonio, and Michigan State’s, first national statement. In his previous three seasons, Dantonio had (largely) beaten only bad teams. This was an 8:00 early season kickoff with the national spotlight. The Spartans had to perform. This game is famous for the ending, which led to most of the country hearing of Dantonio. But in truth this game had all the hallmarks of the program that was set to challenge for titles.
Tied at 7 at the half, Edwin Baker took the second play of the second half 56 yards for a score. Kyle Rudolph flashed his future NFL potential with a tight corner route to tie the score. Though Kirk Cousins was the unquestioned captain of this Spartan team, it was the run game that did the work against the Irish.
The Spartan defense was simply not of the caliber that it would become, but it had its moments. Johnny Adams made a diving interception in the red zone to preserve the tie. The identity was solidified on this night- play defense, take care of the ball, and run it down their throats. The Spartans 43 times for 203 yards, Baker’s 90 yards being bettered by Le’Veon Bell’s 114.
In fact, it was Bell’s performance on two straight third quarter plays that threatened to characterize the game. First, on 3rd and 11, Bell caught a screen pass and got rocked behind the line of scrimmage, but somehow stayed on his feet and ran for the first down. He was rewarded with the off-tackle run on the next play. Bell broke two tackles and found the end zone.
Notre Dame TD catches by future NFL players Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd gave the Irish a 4th quarter lead. Cousins scrambled, pumped, and found BJ Cunningham in the end zone late to send the game to overtime.
The Spartan defense stiffened and forced a field goal, but the offense went backwards. Dan Conroy was facing a 46-yard field goal to try to send the game to a second overtime. Dantonio famously decided to end the game on that play.
The play was simple. Aaron Bates, the holder and former high school quarterback, took the snap and moved two steps to the right. He waited, for what seemed to Spartan fans like forever. Finally, he delivered a strike to Charlie Gantt, all alone in the Notre Dame end zone to end the game.
Dantonio could not help but smirk postgame. In an interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe, he gave the immortal quote: “It was an inexperienced kicker, long kick, we said, ‘hey, let’s go.’ By the way, the name of that play is ‘Little Giants.’”
A Hollywood ending to the game, but only the start of an era.
If all you remember about this game is the ending, go back and watch the whole thing. It may be the best game of the Dantonio era.
The 2010 season featured a shared Big Ten championship, and then an ugly Capital One Bowl loss to Alabama. But overall, an 11-2 final record gave the Spartans nothing but optimism entering the 2011 season. The Spartans had turned a corner. MSU entered the Wisconsin game 5-1, fresh off victories against Ohio State and Michigan. ESPN’s College Gameday came to East Lansing for the game against #4 Wisconsin, and the ABC audience was treated to an instant classic.
This game began… poorly. Wisconsin took the opening kickoff and ran over the hyped-up Spartans. An 11-play, 80-yard, 6-minute drive ended with Russell Wilson finding a wide-open Jacob Pedersen in the end zone on play-action. Edwin Baker fumbled on MSU’s first play from scrimmage, and three plays later it was 14-0. It is possible that the game would have gone very differently had Trenton Robinson not intercepted a Wilson pass late in the first quarter while the Badgers were driving again.
A beautiful punt by the late Mike Sadler gave Wisconsin the ball on their own 5. Wilson was pressured and threw it away in his own end zone. It was ruled intentional grounding and a safety. From there, it was all MSU. Keshawn Martin took an end-around 34 yards to cut the deficit to 14-9.
Darqueze Dennard blocked a field goal, and Cousins threw to Cunningham for a TD to put the Spartans up 16-14. With less than a minute remaining in the half, future Rose Bowl hero Kyler Ellsworth blocked a Badger punt and the Spartans recovered in the end zone. All of a sudden, a Spartan team that had appeared shell-shocked early headed to the locker room up 9.
The Badgers managed a field goal in the third quarter. MSU embarked on a 13-play, 80-yard, 7:34 drive which ended with Martin evading four potential tacklers on a long third down to scoot into the end zone. The Spartans led, 31-17.
The Badgers embarked on a must-have drive with 9 minutes remaining. Eventually, Wilson dashed for a 22-yard scramble to cut the lead to 31-24.
Even after an interception by Isaiah Lewis, the Spartans gave it back to Wisconsin late. Wilson flashed the magic that would lead to him being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, keeping plays alive and converting two long third downs. With 1:26 remaining, Montee Ball took a swing pass into the end zone to tie the score at 31.
The ball stood at the Wisconsin 44-yard line with 4 seconds left when Mark Dantonio called timeout. Dantonio made a rare offensive playcall, insisting on “63 Rocket.” The original play featured Cousins rolling left, the field side, but Dantonio overruled. He said that since Cousins was right-handed, he should roll right, boundary side be damned.
Cousins rolled, he set, he launched. It went through the hands of Badger receiver Jared Abbrederis, inserted because of his ball skills. It deflected off of Cunningham’s facemask, and into the hands of former quarterback Keith Nichol. The Badgers stopped him at the goal line- it was originally ruled short of the goal line, which would have sent it to overtime. A long replay ensued.
“After further review, the runner did cross the line…” began the referee, but nobody ever heard what came next. Euphoria broke out amongst the green-and-white faithful in Spartan Stadium, drowning out the rest of the call. Michigan State had arrived.
The First Bowl Victory: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (3OT) (Jan. 2, 2012)
While MSU defeated Wisconsin in the regular season, they fell to the Badgers in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. After the disappointment in Indianapolis, the Spartans were relegated to the Outback Bowl in Tampa. The moment motivated this group. Despite the upward trajectory of the program, Dantonio’s first recruiting class graduated without a bowl victory. Four straight losses soured the positivity around the program. As freshmen, this second class, led by Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin, fell to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Matched up once again with the Bulldogs, they would not fall again.
This 2011 Spartan team made a habit out of digging themselves first half holes. The Outback Bowl was no exception. Early on, the ball stood at the Spartans’ 2-yard line. A foolish play call, a bubble screen to Martin, resulted in a safety and a 2-0 lead for Georgia. Two disastrous second quarter plays exacerbated the Spartan predicament. First, Isaiah Lewis failed to cover center field and Aaron Murray found Tavarres King for 80 yards. After another MSU drive stalled, Sadler bombed a beauty. Brandon Boykin caught it over his shoulder at the 8-yard line and simply went crazy. At least eight Spartans had chances to catch him, but he deked, feinted, and sprinted his way to a 92-yard punt return touchdown.
The third quarter belonged to one man: Darqueze Dennard. His interception early breathed life into a rudderless Spartan team. Le’Veon Bell ran the ball in from 9 yards out five plays later. A successful two-point conversion drew the game to 16-8. Late in the quarter, Murray threw behind his man on a flat route. Dennard caught it in full stride and sprinted 38 yards. This conversion failed. However, the Spartans entered the fourth quarter with momentum, trailing 16-14.
Georgia kicked a field goal early to increase the lead to five. On the next Spartan drive, a convoy accompanied tight end Brian Linthicum on a screen pass to get down to the 9-yard line. On 3rd-and-goal, Cousins found Keith Nicol in the back of the end zone to take a 20-19 lead.
The Spartans gave up their own long 3rd down with 6:45 remaining. Two-way phenomenon Brandon Boykin took a short pass and went flying into the end zone. A successful Bulldog conversion increased their lead to 27-20.
With 1:55 remaining, the Spartans got the ball on their own 15-yard line, and Kirk Cousins’ final regulation drive of his career was perhaps his finest in green and white. Passes of 15, 7, and 22 pinged the ball to the Georgia 41. He scrambled 20 yards to the Georgia 18-yard line two plays later. He converted a 3rd-and-4 to Keshawn Martin at the 1-yard line. With no timeouts remaining, the Spartans trusted Bell to get into the end zone and he did, scoring with 19 seconds remaining.
Cousins, because nothing came easy, nearly gave the game right back in overtime. His late 3rd down throw to Cunningham was intercepted by Baccari Rambo. Only conservative playcalling and a missed 42-yard field goal by Blair Walsh kept the Spartans alive.
The two teams traded field goals in the second overtime, and MSU only managed three in the third overtime. Anthony Rashad White, the junior college transfer, reached his big hand up in the center of the line and blocked Walsh’s kick. The ball fell to the ground, and, for the first time since 2001, the Spartans were bowl champions.
Mark Dantonio had built a program to last. The success of the 2011 team, and this bowl victory in particular, confirmed the success of the 2010 team. These seasons in conjunction made a statement to the rest of the country: Michigan State was nobody’s little brother. The Spartans asserted themselves as one of the bullies of the Big Ten, and they finally had a huge win over an SEC program to announce it to the rest of the country, too.
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