Dantonio: Spartans never stopped believing
East Lansing — When Michigan State arrived at Michigan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, coach Mark Dantonio had his players take 10 seconds to think about what was about to happen when they took the field against their archrival.
Few could have expected what would transpire hours later on the final play of the game when Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up a fumbled punt and raced 38 yards for the winning touchdown with no time left on the clock, giving the Spartans a 27-23 victory.
The amount of time left on the clock at the start of the final play?
"I don't believe in coincidences," Dantonio said Sunday. "But as we got on that bus and got off that bus to come to the game, I had our players sit there for 10 seconds and think about what could happen. I actually counted it out. It was ironic that those 10 seconds came back to us at the end of the game."
Those 10 seconds were what stood between Michigan State and what was almost certainly the end of its dream to win the Big Ten and have an opportunity to play for a national championship.
But as they have done often in the past five-plus seasons, the Spartans found a way to get it done. Dantonio thanked God after the game and said there "was surely something else to it besides physical."
Maybe it was divine intervention. Maybe it was coincidence.
What it was, for sure, was the latest example of the culture Dantonio has created at Michigan State since taking over in 2007.
"When you're in it and you feel it and you're around your players, you understand whether there is truly a belief in what you're trying to do or if it's just words," Dantonio said. "And our players truly believe that they have a shot to win at every turn."
It was hard to share that belief when Michigan led 23-14 in the fourth quarter. But when Connor Cook hit Trevon Pendleton for a 74-yard pass and LJ Scott scored on the next play, hope was rekindled.
However, it was dashed again when Michigan State came up empty on fourth down from the Michigan 45 with 1:47 to play. But the defense answered by forcing a punt, and when defensive end Shilique Calhoun walked off the field, he had a message for the punt team.
"I just told them to believe," he said.
The resulting play will be etched in Michigan State lore, and it all went back to that belief.
"I think our players understand that you stretch a little here, you play with a little bit more effort there, that great things can happen," Dantonio said. "It doesn't mean that it will happen, but it definitely won't happen if you don't have the belief."
Keeping that same mindset moving forward will be key for No. 7 Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) as it continues its march in the East Division and its potential showdown at No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 21.
And as well as Cook has played the past two weeks, there are other issues that need to be addressed. Health is still a problem up front and in the secondary while the special teams units, outside of the final play Saturday, have hampered the Spartans all year.
Against Michigan, backup quarterback Tyler O'Connor was the primary punter ahead of Jake Hartbarger. Both got a shot, but neither excelled. And the coverage teams struggled, allowing Michigan's Jabrill Peppers to rack up 129 return yards for the game and consistently give the Wolverines good field position.
"That's the underlying thing," Dantonio said. "We gave up too much position on special teams. That's a reoccurring situation that we need to correct, but we made up for it on the last play. Sort of a day-to-day type situation where we need to continue to clean it up, but our specialists need to continue to punt better, kick better, and that's the bottom line."
Michigan State hosts Indiana on Saturday before getting a week off. A trip to Nebraska comes next followed by a visit from Maryland then the matchup with Ohio State.
Avoiding an emotional letdown will be the focus this week.
"We sort of pride ourselves in being very good after a big game," Dantonio said. "In our recent history we've played well after big games whether we've won or lost. Our players understand the opportunities in front of them and they also understand what could happen if we don't play well and what could happen if we don't prepare well."
Indiana at MSU
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Line: Michigan State by 16.5
Records: Indiana 4-3, 0-3 Big Ten; No. 7 Michigan State 7-0, 3-0
Series: Michigan State leads 44-15-2