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Charboneau: Dantonio keeps Spartans moving forward

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
RJ Williamson of Michigan State runs back an interception for a touchdown in the third quarter.

College Park, Md. — For most of Mark Dantonio's time at Michigan State, he's proven that he knows exactly how to get his team to regroup.

Call it pushing the right buttons or just simply understanding his team, Dantonio rarely allows a big loss to linger.

But even with that track record well established in his first seven seasons leading the Spartans, there was plenty of question this week heading into Saturday's meeting with Maryland. That's because last week's loss at home to Ohio State was as devastating as the Spartans have experienced in a long time — certainly under Dantonio.

It wasn't a tough loss to a rival or a game that knocked an up-and-coming program from the ranks of the undefeated even if it was arriving just a bit ahead of schedule. No, the loss last week came when expectations were at their highest.

This was the same team that won a school-record 13 games last season and finally got back to that Rose Bowl — and won. This year was about putting a stamp on that Rose Bowl by reaching the College Football Playoff and competing for a national title.

And even with an early season loss at Oregon, it looked like the Spartans were on that path.

Then, just like that, it was gone.

Grievous setback

Ohio State humbled the Spartans and had Dantonio talking last week about playing through the pain. He even counseled fans during his weekly radio show about dealing with different stages of grief.

"There's frustration among any group of fans when you're about ready to climb over the top of that mountain and all of a sudden you have a setback," Dantonio said. "I understand those things."

So it was simple. Could Dantonio once again pull his team back together and close the season strong? After all, there is still plenty to play for. Not a national title, but a spot in a prestigious bowl game, double-digit wins and the continued momentum of a program on the rise.

Saturday, in front of a sellout crowd at Byrd Stadium, the Spartans provided an emphatic answer with a dominating defensive performance, holding Maryland to 6 yards rushing and coming away with a 37-15 victory.

"It was nice to see our football team rise up today and play and put that chip behind us a bit and move forward," Dantonio said.

Keep on pushing

Perfect it was not.

The offense was out of sync for much of the night and quarterback Connor Cook was not sharp. Early on, even some of the players wondered if there was a bit of a lull, almost a hangover from last week's loss.

"Yeah, definitely," offensive lineman Jack Conklin said. "But that is unacceptable for Michigan State."

And so the defense did its thing long enough for the offense to find its way, putting it all together in the second half and getting a late touchdown run from Jeremy Langford to put the game away.

It was a familiar formula, one that proved the Spartans aren't going away anytime soon.

"A lot of people didn't know how we were going to come out today," defensive back Trae Waynes said. "Would we come out flat because we lost or would we come out strong? We knew how we were gonna play and that's what we did."

In retrospect, there shouldn't have been much question. Dantonio simply hasn't allowed his team to feel sorry for itself. Not after losing to Michigan in 2007, or Ohio State in 2008, or Iowa in 2009 and again in 2010, or to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game in 2011.

One loss almost never becomes two, and if it does, it's not because the Spartans are feeling sorry for themselves.

They weren't on Saturday, and that is because of the guy in charge.

"Any time you have a difficult outing and then come back and play well, it reaffirms your credibility as a football player and a football unit," Dantonio said. "A lot of things happened, but I'm always going to try to be pretty dogmatic and just keep pushing."