Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Angelique Chengelis and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Week 4 for Michigan and Michigan State. Detroit News
East Lansing — When you’re going to go back to the drawing board, it helps to have something to go back to — a reference point, if you will.
For Mark Dantonio and his Michigan State football program, there’s one they’ll always have, one no one will forget. It’s a moment they’ve been asked about quite a bit over the years, and one that inevitably surfaced again this week with another night game against Notre Dame looming at Spartan Stadium.
It’s the “Little Giants” play from 2010, when Dantonio’s bold call for a fake field goal in overtime against the Irish led to a stunning result under the lights in East Lansing, as holder Aaron Bates hit tight end Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown and a 34-31 victory. Then amid the postgame euphoria, Michigan State’s head coach suffered a heart attack.
“Yeah, that sticks out a little — that will stick out for you,” Dantonio said, smiling. “A lot of things happening that day.”
Yet it’s the things that happened after that game that are worth remembering, too. And Saturday’s showdown with Notre Dame — the last scheduled meeting in this rivalry until 2026 — offers a chance to do more than just reminisce.
That “Little Giants” triumph proved to be a springboard for a young Michigan State team that was coming off a disappointing 2009 season marred by off-field trouble. The Spartans went on to win a school-record 11 games in 2010, as well as a share of their first Big Ten title in 20 years.
Parallels are evident
It’s far too soon to say where this team might be headed, but the parallels to 2010 are easy to draw — Notre Dame also was coming off a down year with Brian Kelly replacing Charlie Weis — and it’s never too early to find out where you stand.
Or at least that’s how Dantonio chooses to view things this fall, given all the turmoil — and roster attrition — his team has gone through in the last 12 months.
“I go back to 2010, our entire second unit on defense were freshmen, but that team, inevitably, grew up fast in’10 and ’11, stepped back in ’12, but had a big year in ’13,” Dantonio said. “I think it’s good in that respect. If we had an older team, I’d be talking about that. But (this is) good, too. You sort of embrace what you have.”
And what they have now is the first big opportunity to measure up, as Dantonio likes to say.
“I definitely think it’s a statement game,” junior linebacker Byron Bullough said. “It’s a rivalry game. It’s at 8 p.m., under the lights. … I think this is a game that will put Michigan State back in the spotlight if we come out with a win.”
What happens Saturday night won’t guarantee a successful season, of course. Last year’s Michigan State team won decisively in South Bend and then proceeded to lose nine of their last 10 games. A Michigan State loss in the previous Megaphone Trophy meeting — a penalty-marred 17-13 defeat in 2013 — ended up being the only blemish in an otherwise perfect 13-1 season.
But for a team that has 23 freshmen or sophomores listed on its two-deep roster — and already has played 10 true freshmen this season — there’s no telling what a nationally-televised win over a major program early in the season might mean.
“With anybody, whether you’re experienced, young, old, there’s definitely momentum in the game of football,” said Mike Tressel, Michigan State’s co-defensive coordinator. “And as your confidence goes, you play better. You’re not waiting to see what happens. You believe in it. You go make things happen.
“We’ve been building confidence the first couple weeks, but certainly going out and playing well against Notre Dame will just increase the speed of that momentum.”
Youngsters grow fast
Already, though, Michigan State’s upperclassmen have been impressed with how quickly some of those youngsters have asserted themselves.
“Our young guys are stepping up, they’re making plays,” senior co-captain Chris Frey said. ”I knew coming in that we were a young team. But a lot of the young guys are making a lot more plays than what we expected ‘em to, honestly.”
They’ve only played a couple of games against Mid-American Conference opponents, but sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has asserted himself as a leader, while redshirt freshman Luke Campbell is off to a promising start at right tackle. Sophomore Joe Bachie leads the team in tackles and cornerback Josiah Scott, a true freshman, already is drawing comparisons to former Jim Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard.
Meanwhile, Dantonio’s team is drawing comparisons not to the one that came unraveled a year ago after the Notre Dame win.
No, says Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, “This team looks a lot more similar to some of his earlier teams. Extremely disciplined, hard-nosed, play to the echo of the whistle. Just resembles a lot more of the teams that I had seen in ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13. Those were supremely talented teams the last few years. This team reminds me of some of his earlier teams.”
That might sound like a bit of a backhanded compliment. (Kelly is good at those, in case you hadn’t noticed during his tenure in South Bend.) But it’s probably true. This Michigan State team isn’t loaded with the same kind of talent it had in 2014 or ’15.
Yet there is something here that’s harder to quantify, and starting to emerge.
“You know, what I’ve learned about our football team is that we’ll compete,” Dantonio said this week. “We’re a very excitable group. We have fun. We have a lot of fun. They enjoy practice. They enjoy playing. They enjoy getting ready for a football game. They sort of like their ‘place’ right now.”
That sense of place will be put to the test Saturday night. Maybe put in better context, too. And depending on the ending, the fun might just be getting started.