The Dantonio doctrine includes intense bowl practices

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

East Lansing – After a couple days off to celebrate Christmas, Michigan State is ready to get back on the practice field.

That Spartans were scheduled to be in Dallas by Friday evening, and that's when the intense preparation for Thursday's Cotton Bowl matchup with No. 2 Alabama begins.

However, No. 3 Michigan State's work before the break was anything but easy.

"They've been really intense practices -- pretty long, physical," junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. "We just got to grind out the week, and then we get a few days off at home, which is going to be some down time, some time to just watch film and get our bodies rested.

"Once we get down there, it's time to go again. By game time we'll be at our peak and I think we'll be ready."

The Spartans took a week off after their Big Ten championship game victory over Iowa as Mark Dantonio and the coaching staff hit the road for recruiting. But once they reconvened and watched film on Alabama, it didn't take long for things to ratchet up.

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Any idea the Spartans would be easing back into practice didn't last long.

"It's been fun, but it's also been focused, junior safety Demetrious Cox said. "Coach D, he wants it all. We've been practicing hard. We do have a focus and there is an edge to us being the underdog."

Michigan State is currently a 9.5-point underdog against Alabama, a number that has fluctuated very little since the playoff field was announced. And it's exactly the position Michigan State relishes.

As Cox said, that has affected the attitude in practice.

"There is a little bit more of a chip with how Alabama is (the favorite)," Cox said, comparing practice to last year's preparation for the matchup with Baylor.

But Dantonio was careful to balance his team's attitude before the Spartans left town. He always talks about keeping the lion in the cage, but with nearly a month to prepare, it has been more of a point of emphasis.

"We're making sure it's structured and controlled, but I don't think there's any question, with a week layoff and then anticipating what's coming, our guys are getting ready," Dantonio said. "They know they have to tackle well. They understand that they have to play great technique to be successful this game. So they are working at their craft, but they are also very excited about the opportunity."

Dantonio, who has led the Spartans to nine consecutive bowls, hasn't altered his approach to bowl practices all that much. A win on Thursday would give them their fifth straight bowl win and second straight in the Cotton Bowl.

And Dantonio's even-keel approach from year to year is one of the big reasons for Michigan State's success.

"I don't really see a difference as we are preparing for this game and I think that is a great thing about him," said fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris, who has been part of all of MSU's last four bowl wins. "He doesn't change who he is or what he does. He is still the cool, laid-back coach that we know, and then when gameday comes he will be as fired up as possible.

"He has been like that the entire year, and at this point in the season, he kind of turns it over to the seniors and the leaders on the team."

Those leaders, no doubt, take their cue from Dantonio.

"Right now we've got to let it build, really," fifth-year senior center Jack Allen said. "We can't be all tensed up. We have to let it build day by day."

It's exactly what Dantonio likes to hear.

"We've always had great bowl practices," he said. "Our guys come to work. There's no lack of work here. ... We are going to focus on the moment and that moment is preparation right now."

Cotton Bowl

Alabama vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760

Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1

Line: Alabama by 9.5