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This was, without a doubt, Michigan State’s biggest win … in seven days.
Oh sure, I get it. Beating Michigan is a delicious thing for Spartan fans, and Spartan players - and it should be, considering the maize circus that in-state fans have to live through all year, and the things Spartan players may have heard us saying about them over the last few months, if they were listening.
I understand why Mark Dantonio raised his hand almost as high as he could when asked where this win ranks.
“It’s up there,” he said. “Way up there.”
This is a guy with wins at the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and two Big Ten Championship Games. He’s the only guy with those bullet points on a coaching resumé. Ever.
Yet this win over the erstwhile No. 7-ranked team in the nation ranks that high for him?
Today, yes. By November, who knows?
Back in 2011 when Michigan State punked Michigan 28-14, an excited Kirk Cousins loudly proclaimed that he and his posse would forever be able to “walk the streets,” having gone 4-0 against the Wolverines in their careers.
That was a big win. Many were picking against the Spartans prior to that game, as they always do. And that seemed like a high moment, about as high as someone could reach while sitting down.
But back in 2011, Cousins still had big games to play, such as the skull-smashing 37-31 victory over No. 4- ranked Wisconsin, a mental-hurdle win at Iowa, a Legends Division-clinching win at Northwestern, and then a landmark victory over Georgia at the Outback Bowl.
Where did the win over Michigan end up ranking that year?
Michigan looked good in the funny papers last week, and the week before, and throughout the summer and spring - which is when they’ve been at their best, for half a century. No one is keeping score at that time of year, but somehow they always claim victory, and are granted victory, whether at home or in Rome.
Then another season starts. And at some point, reality sets in that Michigan has won half as many national championships in the last 65 years as Brigham Young.
And this morning, in Wolverine fiefdom, some are whispering for the first time that maybe the king has no robe.
Spartan fans have been hearing for three years that football’s greatest coach was going to return Michigan to its glory years - although no one will actually recognize a return to glory-years football, if and when it happens at Michigan, because no one alive today remembers 1933.
Meanwhile, Spartan fans were enjoying actual progress toward a return of glory years football in late December of 2014 when their team’s victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl was upstaged back home by a press conference announcing Harbaugh’s hiring. Dantonio fielded questions about Harbaugh’s hiring while in Dallas.
Dantonio skillfully answered while giving respect, back then, in Dallas. In truth, it ticked him off. But it also motivated him to continue to dog the program for which he bears a black mark on his soul. (His words).
What bothers him about Michigan?
“Just watch the during warm-ups,” he said back then. “Just watch. I tell our guys that are new to this (rivalry) that it won’t take more than a few minutes around it to see what it’s about. Just watch.”
So I watched again, on Saturday, looking for something inflammatory during the warm-up. I didn’t see anything. Maybe that chapter is done.
Dantonio is still driven like crazy to beat Michigan, and he’s certainly annoyed by the circus that we on the outside make of the Wolverines any time they belch or pass gas. But I don’t think Dantonio is bothered by the people inside the Michigan program like he used to be. However, that hasn’t altered his success against them.
Dantonio is 8-3 against Michigan, exceeding the promise he made the day he was hired that his teams would “measure up” against the Wolverines.
They’ve done better than measure up. On Saturday, they once again stuffed a sock in college football’s paper-program loudmouth.
But by November, if Michigan has lost to Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, this win over an eventual 8-4 (or worse) Wolverine team might not register any greater than MSU’s win over Iowa … seven days ago.
'IT'S SO ENCOURAGING'
Michigan is pretty good. Iowa is pretty good. If those teams played next week, who you got? Flip a coin and plant a flag.
Michigan has great starting unit on defense, and has a chance to become a terrific team this year. But the Wolverines have had a chance to improve every day since their over-glorified victory against Florida on Sept. 2. And they haven’t come very far.
The Wolverines toiled with Air Force and Purdue for too long. Michigan State players watched film of those games and felt they could and should beat Michigan. They felt they could and should win, if they played well in all areas.
As it turned out, they played well in most areas. And played well enough, overall.
That’s why when the Hail Mary pass hit the turf, incomplete, Spartan players jogged and smiled and celebrated.
But they didn’t run and scream and cry.
Michigan State was the better team. Not by much. But Michigan State didn’t need to play a perfect game and conjure up superstar efforts to stage a miracle.
The Spartans just tackled, covered, protected the ball, punted it back to Michigan in the rain and said, “Try to beat us.”
Some day, Michigan State will play a Big Ten team good enough to take that challenge and beat the Spartans. By that time, the Spartans hope to be better than they are today, and present tougher challenges to coming opponents.
It’s kind of methodical, simple process. But we’ve seen them trek through the autumn like this before, so unremarkable, but somehow consistent. In the past, they have racked up wins like recycled cans. And they might be at it again.
“In my mind, that’s the best defense we’re going to see,” said senior center Brian Allen. “It’s so encouraging because we are not even close to playing our best football yet."
The Spartan offense was stuck in neutral for most of the second half, due to beginning their first two drives of the third quarter inside their 5-yard line.
When questioned about playing conservative, Dantonio interrupted: “No, we played smart with the weather.”
Michigan State went three-and-out (or four-and-out) on its first seven drives of the second half.
"We didn’t gamble too much," Dantonio said. "We didn’t go down the field with the ball at all in the second half because of the weather. It was blowing out there, and wet. So everything was intermediate. We tried to run the ball and take the clock as much as we could and make them beat us on defense.”
People will recite those struggles as proof that Michigan State somehow wasn’t deserving of victory.
Meanwhile, Michigan’s offense went three-and-out, interception, interception, interception, three-and-out, and three-and-out on six of its first seven drives of the second half.
But, you see, Michigan State deserves zero credit for those stoppages. The interceptions were all Michigan’s fault. They weren’t of Michigan State’s doing.
Booger Harbaugh didn’t even mention the words “Michigan State” in the four or so minutes of his press conference that appeared on Michigan’s official athletics site. He offered no credit to the winning team, no compliments for Michigan State’s coaches, or defense, or band, or mascot or anything.
Typical. But that shouldn't surprise us. Sometimes he has the maturity level of a fourth-grader.
Dantonio? When given a softball question about going 8-3 against Michigan, the Spartan head coach turned it into a compliment for the opponent.
“Is this win validation for what you’ve done in the past?” someone asked Dantonio.
“I don’t know,” Dantonio said. “We’ve done it eight times. So I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt.
“We’ll do it again or somebody else will do it again at some point in time.
“For this year, that’s the way it went down. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen next year.
“They have a very good football team. They are extremely, extremely well-coached. They ran 40 different formations in the first half. 40. So they are an extremely well-coached football team with great talent, but we have some guys too.”
No one is pretending that the Spartans played a perfect game.
“We made some mistakes there that drive you crazy, but we survived them,” Dantonio said. “Every time we got a turnover, we got a penalty which made it just seem like a punt, and set us back.
“We hurt ourselves sometimes. But also, we found a way to win and I think that’s what good teams do.
“We’re becoming a good team. I don’t know if we’re there yet but we’re 4-1.”
THE PROPER PATH
It was a big win, partly because of the low expectations the public had for these Spartans. They can enjoy a victory like this, and accept it for what it is, and realize there is way more work to do, because it’s not like Michigan State to stump for September Heismans and clamber for better computer rankings than thou.
It was amusing to once again defeat the team that had been climbing the trees, doing the can-opening dives and crying for attention every day of the non-football calendar year.
That’s where college football is different from all the other organized religions of the world. Winning a game and improving to 4-1 is cute and all. But, let’s be real, half of the fun is beating the rival back down to the truth. The truth in Ann Arbor this morning is that 8-4 probably won’t wear well in khaki. And 2-8 against Mr. Dantonio since 2008 seems less than valiant.
But that stuff is just the icing.
The real satisfaction for Michigan State this weekend comes via the self-validation of what’s been going on within their own walls. And that's what Dantonio was getting at, when he reached his hand high to signify where this win ranks with him.
It wasn't just the win. It was the journey.
This win, these four wins, the brand of football required to win them, the improved pass rush, the updated pass defense, the return of a disciplined run defense, the expanded defensive repertoire, the quality pass protection, the improved red zone play design, the return of team football not just on Saturdays, but every hour of every day … they’re all part of the validation that everything dictated by Dantonio, since the Monday after last Thanksgiving, through winter conditioning, every edict and decision Dantonio made through the spring and summer and fall camp, all set the Michigan State program on the proper path to today.
The proper path.
“Our biggest thing coming into this season was restoring the attitude that this program used to have,” Allen said. “We haven’t played our best football yet, but you see guys playing to the whistle, you see guys finishing, you see guys cheering each other on.
“Laress Nelson drops that punt, and you’ve got five guys out there telling him, ‘Hey man, no one cares. Keep your head up and we’re moving.’
“Guys made mistakes all night; guys are picking each other up. (We are) so much closer, so much more of a team. It’s just that attitude that we’re not going to accept losing, we’re going to keep going. It’s nice to see that in action. We’ve talked about it from November on, but we’re doing it now. So it’s cool to see.”
The rest of us had to wait until Saturday’s big reveal in Ann Arbor to get a true handle on the progress that’s been made.
“We battled some adversity last year,” Dantonio said. “We had some things going. Obviously we needed to bounce back. We made a commitment to do that as a program and a football team way back in the spring. We had some different things going on in the second semester as well, but I knew that we would rally up and I knew that our football team and our program would basically come back to the top.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to go step by step.”
There’s validation that Michigan State is back as the best team in the state, back as a player in the Big Ten East, which means a player in the Big Ten, which means a player in everything. And validation that Dantonio’s blueprint for success still works, and is still in place, with a roster stocked with sophomores.
Harbaugh is now 1-2 against Dantonio. Don’t bring up Michigan’s record against it’s two main rivals over the last 10 or 15 years. And Michigan, for the first time since late December of 2014, might not want to talk about the future, either.
If you can’t get above .500 against Michigan State this year, if you can’t beat the Spartans this year, when is Michigan going to do it? Next year in East Lansing when Lewerke and most of the offensive line and key receivers get a year older and become … juniors? Next year when 90 percent of the playing group on defense returns? Next year, when the Spartans have spent an extra 365 days on Dantonio’s re-proven path?
Today, and throughout the week, anti-MSU factions might say this game was ugly, and that Michigan State didn’t win it as much as Michigan gave it to them.
Michigan has never actually lost a game, you see. It’s usually the fault of a crowned field, or poor officiating, or a bad Wolverine coach on his way out, or a bad quarterback who shouldn’t be on the field. It’s never, ever the opponent that is responsible for a Wolverine loss.
And that’s part of the circus that hits you in your religion. But it’s also amusing.
The game was ugly? Not to a Spartan fan. This game pitted two of the top five defenses in America, with almost half of the game played in 20-plus mile an hour winds and driving rain. What did you expect, Holiday on Ice? Shut up. This is Midwestern football, and Dantonio might be on his way to becoming its new face.
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