Shilique Calhoun punctuates Michigan State's victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Glen Mason knows the Big Ten.
That happens when you’ve been a head coach at Minnesota and had stops as an assistant at Ohio State and Illinois.
But the current Big Ten analyst knows Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio fairly well, too. When Mason was the head coach at Kansas, Dantonio was his defensive backs coach from 1991-94.
So he has a unique perspective on the success Dantonio has had in his first seven seasons leading the Spartans. He took a few minutes to talk about what is in store Dantonio and Michigan State heading into the 2014 season.
Question: Is Michigan State now in position to be considered among the nation’s elite teams?
Mason: “I think they took that step last year. If anything, they didn’t get enough credit for what they accomplished in 2013, nor did the Big Ten get much credit for what Michigan State accomplished. They lost one game, which was a very questionable game against Notre Dame with four questionable defensive pass interferences. Other than that they run the table, finished in royal fashion. They beat Ohio State in the championship game and they go out and play Stanford in the Rose Bowl and they win out there. To me, when you start putting it on the national stage -- if that was Ohio State that had done the same thing, you’d say ‘Yeah, they’re on the national stage, look what they did.’ Michigan State did that last year.”
Question: Is Michigan State’s defense at the point of reloading and can they expect a drop-off?
Mason: “I think that defense will reload. The great thing they have going for them is a confidence and swagger on defense that you only get when you’ve had success, consistent success, which they’ve had. Do I think they’ll be the No. 1 defense in all those categories like they were a year ago? I would question that. I’ve said all along that I think Michigan State would be a very, very good football team this year but Mark Dantonio will reinvent Michigan State football going into this year because I don’t think they’ll be as good defensively. I’m not going to say they’re going to be bad -- they’ll be good -- but not as good as we’ve become accustomed, but they’re gonna be a heck of a lot better offensively.
“The improvement they made after that Notre Dame game last year was nothing short of remarkable. To think that Connor Cook was essentially benched at the end of that game and ended up being the MVP of the championship game and the Rose Bowl, and for (Jeremy) Langford to set off on eight straight 100-yard games is truly amazing. I think a big part of that untold story is the offensive line came of age and performed awful well.”
Question: Is Connor Cook on the verge of becoming an All-American caliber player?
Mason: “If being the MVP of the championship game against Ohio State and the MVP of the Rose Bowl beating Stanford doesn’t give you star status I don’t know what does. I just think that, again, what an amazing story being benched after the Notre Dame game. I still remember running into a bunch of Michigan State people at the airport after that game -- I was traveling after doing another game. These people were loyal Michigan State fans and they basically said, ‘Connor Cook can’t get it done for us.’ The confidence that he has to have -- I talk about the confidence and the swagger the defense has to have -- I would think that Connor Cook would be in that same boat right now.”
Question: Would you be surprised if Michigan State doesn’t get back to the Big Ten championship game?
Mason: “It’s like the champion boxer -- until he gets beat you’re still the champion. You look at how they played at the end of the year and how much improved you assume they’re gonna be on offense, why wouldn’t they be the team? And then you also look at their home schedule, which is pretty favorable.”
Question: What are your thoughts on the job Mark Dantonio has done entering his eighth season at Michigan State?
Mason: “I would say it’s nothing short of spectacular. He went in there and took a program that was struggling and very methodically he knew what he wanted. From a recruiting standpoint he knew who he was gonna go after. I love the comment that Denicos Allen said last year, ‘We don’t have a lot of four- and five-star players on our roster but we play like five-star players.’
“To me there is two parts to recruiting. Most people just think about getting the players, the rankings. A big part of it is evaluation, and needless to say Mark has done a tremendous job evaluating players. In most schools, that’s more important, or just as important as being able to get guys. Then he knew what he wanted to do from a football standpoint about winning formulas -- playing great defense, ball-control offense and putting together a tremendous coaching staff.”