Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo are joined by former running backs Nick Hill of MSU and Chris Howard of UM to talk about this weekend's big games, and Matt Charboneau breaks down his AP Top 25 vote. Detroit News


East Lansing – The clock was winding down, but before Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio had his team line up to attempt the winning field goal Saturday against Penn State, he still had message or two to deliver.

He just wanted to make sure the time was right before he did, even at the end of a game that’d taken nearly seven hours to complete thanks to a lengthy weather delay.

And after redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin had booted the 34-yarder to seal the 27-24 upset of the Nittany Lions – the Spartans’ eighth win over a top-10 team in the last five seasons -- Dantonio wanted to make sure his players understood.

It wasn’t just the prayer card he’d handed Coghlin, the one with Psalm 91 and a message about protection that includes the line "You will trample the great lion” in it. No, this was a little more subtle, and it had to do with one of his favorite sayings, the old Bobby Knight line about how mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.

“So he comes into the locker room after the game on Saturday and he says, ‘Did you guys see that? I called timeout with four seconds left!’” senior co-captain Chris Frey said.

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And from there, they all had a good laugh about it, with Frey breaking down the postgame huddle by yelling about a four-hour break and one team and Dantonio taking the numerology one step further and noting Coghlin’s No. 4 jersey. (It’s also the same number worn by his predecessor, Matt Geiger, who made a similar winning kick – from 41 yards, no less – to stun Ohio State in Columbus two years ago.)

“He takes that stuff seriously,” Frey said. “But at the same time, some of the stuff he does is funny. He knows that. We always give him crap for it. But we love it, too.”

Whatever works

They love it because it works, obviously. But as hokey as some of it might seem from a distance – from the trick plays like “Little Giants” and “Mousetrap” to the 800-pound rock his team pulled around the practice field in recent years – it’s about more than simply the results inside Michigan State’s program. It’s about the resolve that Dantonio’s motivational tactics reinforce, everyone agrees, and the lengths to which he’ll go to make sure his messages resonate.

A few weeks ago, the 61-year-old Dantonio began the week of preparation for Indiana by rolling a bowling ball down the middle of the room at a team meeting. The message, of course, was that the Spartans needed one more win to become bowl-eligible, a year after missing out on college football’s postseason fun for the first time in Dantonio’s 10-year tenure as MSU’s head coach.

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The week before, he’d given his players poker chips -- an old standby -- to remind them play with a chip on their shoulder. Before the rivalry win at Michigan, it was a rock. (“You’ve got to be a rock,” Frey explained.) And last week, as the Spartans got ready for Penn State, he gave them all puzzle pieces. They carried them with them until Saturday, when they each put them on a table, one by one, as soon as they entered the Spartan Stadium locker room on gameday.

“I think it’s a visual thing,” sophomore safety David Dowell said. “It’s one thing just to say something, but it’s another to have something. So whether it’s the chip or the piece of the puzzle, it’s just something to remind you what you’re playing for every time you touch your pocket or whatever. You’re playing for the guy next to you.

“And when everybody gets a piece of the puzzle, it kind of lets you know that you’re still involved in this, even though you might not be playing as much. It’s just about keeping everybody involved, keeping everybody engaged.”

As it turned out, the puzzle helped keep a few of the players engaged Saturday in an unexpected way. While some teammates napped or listened to music during the 3.5-hour weather delay, safety Khari Willis actually killed some time by doing a little work on the puzzle.

'Tricks up his sleeve'

But eventually they got back to work on the field, where it turns out Dantonio doesn’t have to say much to be heard.

“Coach D is really good at giving us little mantras, little sayings, that we can sort of cling to,” Willis said. “That’s what you do as a player. You hear it all week, so it gets embedded into what you’re doing. Like with ‘Find the inches,’ and then you’re out there and it’s third-and-1 and you’re gonna go try to find those inches and make that big play.”

Or “Don’t flinch,” which is one that has been rattling around in Willis’ head ever since Dantonio looked him in the eye and said it to him as a freshman. It’s one that Dowell, who had a pair of interceptions in the win over Penn State, thought about Saturday as well.

“It means don’t overthink things, just play fast,” Dowell said. “That’s something we pride ourselves on here on defense.”

Clearly, this is something Dantonio takes pride in, too, his ability to motivate his players, to get them focused and then keep their composure in the heat of the moment. And with another big moment looming Saturday in Columbus, the Spartans weren’t sure what the message might sound like -- or look and feel like -- this week.

“Coach D has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, so you never really know,” Dowell said Tuesday, noting that often the "trick" isn't revealed until Thursday or Friday.

Still, for a guy with a pretty good poker face, Dantonio might’ve offered a hint earlier in the week. When a reporter asked him about feeling disrespected with the Spartans being listed as a 16-point underdog at Ohio State, the coach smiled and said, “It's gone to 16, huh?” And then after explaining – not all that believably – why none of that really mattered to him or his team, Dantonio shrugged and added, “I didn't know the spread. But there you go. We'll just have to roll the dice.”

It’s probably a safe bet his players will hear that a time or two this week as well.