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Dantonio keeps Michigan State focused

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When Michael Geiger raced the length of the field at Ohio Stadium last Saturday, swinging his right arm in a circle as his teammates chased him, it provided celebration footage for years to come.

And who can blame Geiger and his teammates? Michigan State had just beaten Ohio State on Geiger's 41-yard field goal as time expired. It was a win that kept the Spartans in the Big Ten and College Football Playoff hunt and ended the Buckeyes' 23-game winning streak.

So yeah, have some fun.

But what has been more impressive about Michigan State under the leadership of coach Mark Dantonio is how quickly it has moved on from big games — win or lose — to focus on the next opponent.

Losses have been rare, so images of the Spartans dancing in the locker room after victories has been common. Very rarely has that sort of celebration lingered into the following week, which in this instance brings a home game against Penn State.

"I think that is sort of just the mindset, we move on to the next game," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "You get excited and celebrate for a little bit, but you know there is still more work to be done and I think they know how critical this game is."

Cook likely a game-day decision for MSU

There's no doubt about that. If No. 6 Michigan State, which is No. 5 in the latest playoff rankings, beats Penn State Saturday on Senior Day, it will win the Big Ten East Division and play in the conference championship game for the third time in five years.

It will put to the test the theory the Spartans know how to focus on a week-to-week basis. Just this season Michigan State followed the Oregon victory by beating a good Air Force team and came back from the thrilling win at Michigan by beating Indiana, 52-26.

And in their past six meetings against Top 10 teams, the Spartans are 5-1 and followed each of the five victories with another victory.

"It think this week, honestly, is a bigger game," left tackle Jack Conklin said. "If we win this game we go to the championship game and if we lose, who knows where we're going. That's the biggest thing — knowing this game is important and the leaders on this team do a good job of bringing the younger guys around and they know they've got to stay focused."

That sort of culture isn't created overnight.

There were ups and downs when Dantonio first arrived, but going through some of those challenges created a team that rarely suffers a letdown.

"When you come and you first get here, you sort of get rocked in one game and you have to respond," coach Mark Dantonio said. "This is a process. And I say it all the time, everybody sees the product, but they don't see the process that goes into what we're trying to become or what we have become.

"But maturity, senior leadership, maybe having games where we didn't respond early in the time here. Now the big point of emphasis is after a big game, how do you handle it? Whether it's something bad or whether it's something good, but after you've done something, how do you handle it? How do you handle success? How do you handle adversity?"

Michigan State has handled it well, especially since 2010. Since that season, Michigan State has won 10 more games every season but one (2012) and another win this weekend will up that number to 11 victories.

It helps to be playing well, and Michigan State might be at its best right now. The offensive line is healthy enough to get the running game rolling and the defense has had back-to-back impressive outings.

If quarterback Connor Cook returns, the Spartans will be a full strength, and the fun of last week will be nothing more than a pleasant memory.

"We try not to dwell on the past," running back Gerald Holmes said. "We have the 24-hour rule. We come out and celebrate and have a good time, but we know it is game-by-game. If we don't win this game then there is no Big Ten championship, so we're focused on the next game in front of us."

It's the approach Dantonio had engrained in his players.