East Lansing — Been there, haven’t done that.
As a coach, that’s the ideal scenario, motivationally speaking. And for Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, that’s probably what made the relatively subdued postgame atmosphere here Saturday so strangely satisfying.
The Spartans sent their seniors out in style, with a 14-3 win over Minnesota that capped another unbeaten home schedule and the school’s first perfect Big Ten regular season since 1966.
But even that uncharted territory felt like old news by the time the head coach and his players met with the media afterward. And that bodes well for the immediate future, as Michigan State (11-1) prepares to face Ohio State (12-0) for the outright Big Ten championship next weekend in Indianapolis.
“We’ve been here before,” Dantonio said. “We’ve won 11 games before. And it feels good. You feel like you’ve attained a goal. But at the same time, nobody’s giving anybody Gatorade showers. We have one more to go.”
That’s the one that really counts. That’s the one that can set this team apart from all the others. And for the Spartans, who’d already booked their trip to Indianapolis with last week’s win at Northwestern, that’s the one they finally can talk about now.
“It’s a lot that I’ve got building up,” senior linebacker Denicos Allen said. “And I can’t wait to let it all out.”
Well, the wait is nearly over: Bring on the Buckeyes.
“My kids said, ‘Dad, you want us to DVR the Ohio State game?’” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi joked late Saturday afternoon, only moments before Ohio State managed to escape with a win in Ann Arbor. “And I said, ‘Please.’”
And thanks again to his defense, the Spartans are headed to Indianapolis on a positive note.
Michigan State’s offense sputtered Saturday in ways it hadn’t in weeks, failing to convert a third down all afternoon (0-for-8) and finishing with just 51 offensive snaps. And while the defense had some issues of its own — Minnesota’s David Cobb rushed for 101 yards, and the Gophers held a 2-to-1 advantage in possession time — the final outcome never really was in doubt.
“They had three points,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said. “Let’s think about that: That’s a Big Ten team that has won a lot of games, and they had three points. In the end, that’s what matters.”
What matters now, of course, is beating Ohio State for an automatic berth to the Rose Bowl, though the consolation prize might still be — should be? — a BCS at-large berth. Maybe even a trip to Pasadena, after the way the rest of Saturday’s chaos unfolded.
Dantonio wasn’t shy about lobbying for one when asked to do so Saturday — “Two teams from the Big Ten should go,” he said — but all his talk about the “risk” involved in playing in a conference championship game may prove unnecessary in the wake of Wisconsin’s stunning loss to Penn State on Saturday.
“Hopefully we’re attractive enough, if we lose,” Dantonio said. “But we don’t plan on losing.”
Like I said, they’ve been there and done that. And they certainly don’t plan on doing it again, with the memory of that 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten title game two years ago still lingering for many.
“We lost the game on one of the last plays of the game, so there’s not too much I would change,” Dantonio said, before adding with a laugh, “Other than the last play of the game, or something like that.”
That, of course, is a reference to Michigan State’s punt-block attempt with under 2 minutes left in the 2011 title game, a play that drew a controversial flag — negating Keshawn Martin’s potential game-winning return — and effectively ended the Spartans’ chances.
Safety Isaiah Lewis, the player who got flagged, said, “You don’t even understand, the last time I was in Indianapolis, for me, I was heartbroken.”
We might not understand, but his teammates do.
Eyes on the prize
The strength of this team is in it’s senior leadership, particularly on defense. And the look in Bullough’s eyes as he talked about the defense going live in practice this week tells you everything you need to know about the Spartans’ motivation. If any team can shut down Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, it’s probably this one, and they know it. But just in case, they’re going to prove it with pads on against the scout team led by freshman Damion Terry. (”He needs to rest up this weekend,” said cornerback Darqueze Dennard, “because he’s gonna have a long week.”) And then they’ll head to Indianapolis with something to prove.
Yep, maybe by a touchdown or more.
“Let’s hope so,” Dantonio said, grinning.
But overwhelmed? No chance.
“Just knowing we got so close,” Dennard said. “Everybody who was down there knows. Walking off the field without them roses in our mouths, it left a bad taste.”
Asked what his message will be to some of the Michigan State underclassmen this week, he replied, flatly, “You don’t want to have that feeling that I had.”
No, what they want is what they’ve got now. And Saturday, it felt pretty good.