MSU head coach Mark Dantonio talks about Indiana, as well as last week's win at Minnesota. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — For a few minutes late Saturday night in Minneapolis, things were getting a bit tense for Michigan State.
The big lead the Spartans had built through three quarters was diminishing quickly, and as linebacker Chris Frey and cornerback Justin Layne both pulled off hitting Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft along the sidelines, the frustration of the moment was hard to avoid.
“It’s one of those things where you think you don’t want to hit the guy out of bounds, and then he doesn’t run out of bounds and you look like you’ve not played football for a while,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That was a mind-blower.”
The Spartans overcame that play and three fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Croft to earn the 30-27 victory and remain unbeaten in Big Ten play. But finishing strong will be a focus this week as No. 18 Michigan State (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) gets set to host Indiana (3-3, 0-3) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“I think things speed up a little bit on you at the end of a game,” Dantonio said. “You got to get off the field or make a first down, whatever you got to do. You’re going to make some mistakes, probably.
“I think as much as anything, it’s the competition you play against. We play against good football teams that are well-coached. Nobody quits. What you saw at Minnesota last week … it is 30-13, you feel like the game is pretty much over. We’re on the field for four plays defensively (in the third quarter), sitting on the sideline, not ready mentally to come back in and play. But we were able to grab it at the end, persevere through it. Somehow, somebody got it done.”
The fourth quarter against Minnesota aside, Dantonio believes his team has been doing well at finding ways to win.
The Spartans held Iowa to three second-half points in the Big Ten opener to win, 17-10, and a week later at Michigan, the Wolverines were held off the scoreboard in the final quarter as Michigan State pulled out a 14-10 victory.
“If you look at the week before (against Michigan), grind it out there, too,” Dantonio said. “Didn’t want to grind it out. Some of it was maybe some things we couldn’t control. Some of it was things we could control. Even the week before that, the Iowa game.
“We’re playing good football teams that are well-coached. They’ve got players that play through till the end of the game.”
Things have changed dramatically around the Michigan State program from this time a year ago. The wins are piling up, unlike last season, and the mood is far lighter.
Dantonio said the players are even laughing at his jokes now.
“I don’t think they laughed at them before as much,” he said with a smile.
But Dantonio has never been one to let a tough season keep him down, and he took the same approach heading into 2017.
“You get to a point when you have a tough season like that, you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to do the best I can for our players and this program,’ ” Dantonio said. “That’s collectively as a group. That’s what I’ve asked everybody to do. That’s what’s happened.
“But it’s fun to win. I just sort of said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do what I do, let’s go, love our players, appreciate what they’ve done.’ That’s what we’ve done.”
Just don’t expect to see many more smiles on the sidelines from Dantonio.
“I don’t know that I’ve changed that much,” he said. “I probably still got a little bit of orneriness in me, snap a little bit. But I laugh about it, too.”
It’s not exactly Paul Bunyan, but there is a trophy up for grabs on Saturday as Michigan State and Indiana play for the Old Brass Spittoon. The spittoon is believed to be 190 years old and legend says it was around when both schools were founded — Indiana in 1820 and MSU in 1855 when it was called Agricultural College of the State of Michigan.
The teams have been playing for the spittoon since 1950 with Michigan State leading, 45-13-1.
… Defensive end Kenny Willekes was given credit for a second sack in the Minnesota game after first-quarter play was changed from no tackle to the sack for the sophomore. The change gave Willekes two for the game and four for the season as MSU’s team total jumps to 16.