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Henning: Izzo's Spartans are blueprint for Dantonio's

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Notice how Tom Izzo and his Michigan State basketball teams do it.

Sometimes, their regular seasons are uneven, choppy if you prefer. They might lose a couple of consecutive Big Ten games to teams they should have beaten. In past years they often have lost early to heavyweights that have left Michigan State looking as if it could have a long road to any kind of luster in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, by the time March arrives, Izzo's gang has figured it out. Michigan State makes another Final Four. And all those bumps and short-term doubts seem only to have been part of a necessary process.

Izzo's cross-campus friend, Mark Dantonio, and his football team appear to have adopted basketball's script.

The Spartans annihilated Penn State, 55-16, in Saturday's chill at Spartan Stadium. With this drubbing, Michigan State won a ticket to next Saturday night's Big Ten championship game against Iowa at Indianapolis.

And if Dantonio's lads pull off a victory, the Spartans, almost assuredly, will have made football's version of the Final Four.

Not everyone in East Lansing, no matter how much Green and White DNA might have been harbored, saw this finish coming.

The Spartans spent much of September and October trying to figure out how good, or how fortunate, they were to be playing unbeaten football and hanging onto their Top 10 ranking.

They were winning. But apart from their victory against Michigan in the Disbelief Bowl at Ann Arbor, not much of true inspiration was happening.

And that, primarily, is because the Spartans might as well have turned crutches into a logo and plastered it across their helmets and jerseys as an official 2015 insignia.

No one complained about some really crummy luck, extraordinary even by the standards of an injury-pocked sport. That's part of Dantonio's culture. His team probably does the best job, psychologically, of handling football's mental side of any coach in America, Nick Saban included.

Winning tough

What the Spartans instead did was coalesce, slowly, into the kind of team that doesn't give in, steadily gets better and, by season's end, finds itself peaking at precisely the time it hits a national stage.

Izzo's bunch has done this for years. His guys time and time again have willed and toughed their way into Final Fours and into long March runs.

Dantonio's team this season, which without doubt has been his most unusual squad in nine years at MSU, is all but a carbon copy in its construct of excellent players, ability to steal victories on days and nights when it might have lost, and, now, in its potential to create a ruckus nationally.

The Spartans have done this after losing one starter after another either for the year or for long, harsh stretches when only Dantonio's roster depth saved him and his team's record.

It is not a done deal, this stroll into the NCAA's four-team playoff. Not yet.

Iowa is good. Iowa and MSU, in fact, this autumn share something of a team personality. They figure out ways to win convincingly or narrowly, depending upon the week.

Note that regular-season finale the Hawkeyes played Friday at Nebraska. Iowa already had wrapped up a reservation in the Big Ten showdown game. Kirk Ferentz's job was to pound fire and focus into a Hawkeyes squad obliged to win, on the road, against a Cornhuskers crew that is the only team in 2015 to have socked the Spartans.

Nebraska so badly outgained and out-maneuvered Iowa that, statistically speaking, it could have been a wipeout by Nebraska and a terrible note on which to bring the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis.

But it didn't end any differently than has any game for Ferentz and Co. in 2015.

The Hawkeyes won. And beginning with Dantonio, who knows all about the heft and big-play power of Ferentz's team, MSU understands Saturday night at Indianapolis will be nothing less than a brawn-bash that could be as tough as the game Michigan State expended heart and soul in winning the previous week at Columbus against Ohio State.

But, again, timing has everything to do with MSU's dream of cracking the four-team NCAA tournament and maybe stealing a national championship.

Let it rip

It has to do with everything that has been extracted from 2015's often star-crossed autumn. Backup players had to become starters. Backups to backups were obliged to play, suddenly, spontaneously, in huge games at Ann Arbor and elsewhere.

Three kids who a year ago were dressed in high school uniforms lost their redshirts and had to function as capable defensive backs in a Michigan State secondary that was thin even before starters began their relocations to crutches and physical therapy.

Dantonio had, also, to deal with kicking and special-team issues that have since become tenable. He had to rebuild an offensive line that was all but dismantled by bad knees and fractured legs.

He had, finally, to opt for his No. 2 and No. 3 quarterbacks against, of all teams, the Buckeyes in an astonishingly valiant victory that saw Dantonio's troops hammer OSU's line, on both sides of the ball, into a 17-14 MSU victory.

Saturday was something of a mix. But only briefly. The Spartans started slowly, awkwardly, and were it not for turnovers turned into touchdowns, MSU wouldn't have been leading 20-10 at the half after Penn State outgained the Spartans through two quarters.

It was as long as Saturday's duel was an actual game. Michigan State got busy with its mauling, and playmaking, and harassing, all as the Spartans created their usual bagful of breaks because of a defense that so often causes an opponent to fray and fall apart.

Notice, again, the comparison.

A basketball team that plays its games a few hundred yards west of Spartan Stadium studies from the same textbook.

Play with consummate energy through the regular season. Get progressively, if only incrementally, better by the week. Then, hope to take a quorum of healthy bodies into the postseason.

And let it rip.

Dantonio and Izzo are all but soulmates for a good reason.

Their teams are mirror images of the men who run them. Of men who, almost eerily, share the same thoughts on how to meld bodies and metaphysics into sports excellence.

It's Dantonio's turn to unveil his rendition nationally.

Don't sell short a coach, or a team, that dealt with some early stress and now seems ready to be the tough bunch much of American anticipated seeing during this wild, strange autumn of 2015.