Kurtis Drummond and the Spartans are 9-1 and boast the nation's No. 1 defense. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — The postgame celebratory song is called “Type of Way,” a fitting tune for the Spartans these days. They’re doing this precisely their type of way, and there’s no disputing the way it is.
Of all the things Mark Dantonio has built at Michigan State, this is the most impressive. The Spartans know who they are and where they’re trying to go, and they possess a championship-level edge. This isn’t by accident. There’s a clarity of purpose about the program, built for this time of year and this type of game.
It’s reflected in many ways, in the top-ranked defense and the 9-1 record as Michigan State tries to clinch the Legends Division title at Northwestern on Saturday. The Spartans have done everything with vigor this season, right down to the postgame dances, as coaches and players take turns while “Type of Way” blares.
It’s a rap song by Rich Homie Quan, and no, the lyrics don’t exactly match “On the banks of the Red Cedar.” But the locker room videos are fun, uplifting images of a team comfortable with who it is, and increasingly comfortable with higher expectations.
For the third time in four years, the Spartans are likely to win 11 games. For the second time in three years, they’re likely to play in the Big Ten championship game. Tell them they’re due to stumble, as they did during last year’s 7-6 struggle, and it becomes fuel. Tell them they’re on the verge of greatness, and it becomes fodder.
Dantonio has heard it all, from the murmurs of offensive disaster early this season, right up to that crushing victory at Nebraska last week.
“The media paints a very bleak picture in September, starts to say in October, maybe, and now they’re painting a very positive picture,” Dantonio said. “Like I said last week, you got to chew on that gum and spit it out. If you believe you’re not good enough, you won’t be. If you believe you’re too good, you’ll stop working. Somewhere between there, we need to find our identity.”
'We know what to do'
It seems to me the Spartans have found their identity, but I’m part of the gum brigade. So are you, by the way. While others focus on big-name recruits and flashy offenses, Dantonio has stirred fearlessness and fierceness in players sometimes overlooked. You can see it in Pat Narduzzi’s blitz-happy defense, in the pounding running game, and in Dantonio’s willingness to take risks with trick plays or quarterback shuffles.
There’s a reason Michigan State becomes a terror this time of year. Its tough, physical style requires stability and development, and defensive aggression can be ratcheted as the games get bigger and the days get colder. The Spartans are 16-5 in November under Dantonio and 18-9 in Big Ten road games, winning five straight. You want flashy numbers, there you go.
“That is the intention, first of all,” said Dantonio, 60-29 in seven seasons here. “That’s the mindset we’re tried to have since coming here. That’s something we’ve developed, especially the road-game atmosphere.”
It’s the biggest difference between these Spartans and weaker-minded predecessors. When you can see your breath on the field, you can see the goal in sight.
“It’s easy to be focused the first day of camp or the first game — -when it gets hard is the end of November when it’s cold out there,” linebacker Max Bullough said. “That’s what championship teams do. We’ve been there before, on both sides of the spectrum, so we know what to do.”
The Spartans’ schedule was conducive to growth, and they needed the non-conference to figure things out on offense. Still, if not for controversial pass-interference penalties in that 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, they’d be chasing perfection.
Now, quarterback Connor Cook is gaining confidence and poise. That non-existent running game? It exists in the legs of tailback Jeremy Langford, who has five straight 100-yard games behind a deep, experienced offensive line.
'We've not arrived'
The Spartans’ suffocating defense is loaded with stars, but not necessarily pre-ordained recruiting stars. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard and end Shilique Calhoun are prime examples of unheralded players flourishing in a system suited for them. Linebackers Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones have started a combined 86 games, and safeties Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond have a combined 53 starts.
When a program takes time to develop players, others usually are ready to step in, which is why Michigan State’s success is sustainable even with five defensive starters graduating. Just don’t stress the warm and fuzzy stuff too much, because Dantonio enjoys working on the edge.
“I don’t want anybody to think we’ve arrived — we’ve not arrived,” he said. “We’re a long ways from that. So we need to handle success. ... I would just say, it takes a steady hand to hold an overflowing cup.”
He said it with a smile, and Dantonio appears as loose as he’s ever been. But the grip is still firm and the hand still steady, even as the Spartans search for the ultimate overflow. If they handle the 4-6 Wildcats, a conference championship clash with the Buckeyes beckons. Michigan State hasn’t gone to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season, and the chase continues.
The Spartans travel well these days, not intimidated by old haunts and taunts. They’re ranked 13th — too low, by the way — and gaining more and more exposure. Between dancing and defensive dominance, they know who they are, and aren’t remotely afraid to show it.