Henning: Spartans style prevails in 'tough' conditions

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Matt Sokol runs for a first down against Maryland's RaVon Davis during the second half.

East Lansing — When he got to the podium Saturday evening his face was bright red but not in the fashion of a man embarrassed or suffering from one too many belts of game-day bourbon.

Mark Dantonio had been wind- and snow-whipped for 3 1/2 hours on Spartan Stadium’s sidelines and looked as if he might have been wiser to have worn a snowmobile suit for Saturday’s tussle.

“Should have brought some hot chocolate with me,” Dantonio said, shaking off the shivers as he met for a post-game media debriefing following the Spartans’ 17-7 coldcocking of Maryland. “It was tough out there.”

And it’s tough in there — deep within a Big Ten football team that had, and still has, so much to recover in football prestige and self-respect.

The Spartans continued Saturday with their 2017 Redemption Tour in a snow-fest at Spartan Stadium. They beat Maryland, 17-7, and never mind that it wasn’t graceful, or dynamic, or a contest critical enough to keep, during the second half, more than a new hundred fans in the stands, accompanied by their brandy-cask-carrying St. Bernards.

It was a nasty brawl, indeed, fought as much against snow-swirls and wind and a dropping thermometer as against a lower-caste Terrapins team that couldn’t match the Spartans’ beef.

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What counted for Michigan State wasn’t only that this team now, rather stunningly, is a potential close-out triumph over Rutgers from finishing autumn’s calendar with a 9-3 record.

What mattered Saturday is how they won. These kids. These senior-light MSU players who again wrung out a victory by way of their not-so-elegant 2017 blueprint.

Close to the vest

They, of course, treated the Terps to a customary Saturday of Spartan defense. They countered on offense with just enough heft up front to allow LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes time and room to chomp yardage and keep quarterback Brian Lewerke from depending upon drive-sustaining passes, which generally had been required for Spartans survival earlier in this increasingly remarkable season of football in East Lansing.

Saturday was a day better-suited to throwing snowballs. Lewerke’s numbers confirmed as much. He was 2-for-14 passing. The Spartans got 20 air yards. Those are numbers from college football’s old single-platoon, single-wing days. And that was about as sophisticated as MSU got as the sky darkened, the snow flew, and Dantonio’s guys all but dug burrows into the stadium turf.

They got overly conservative at the end, absolutely. The Terrapins scored one fourth-quarter TD and nearly stabbed the Spartans for another after MSU decided to sit tight on its lead.

And yet you could understand a coaching staff’s approach, given Saturday’s sled-dog conditions.

“As the game progressed, we didn’t have to throw the football,” said Dantonio, whose team shook off the previous week’s massacre at Ohio State and simply reassumed its old, no-frills persona Saturday. “We had a three-possession lead.”

And so he and Dave Warner, the Spartans offensive coordinator who isn’t always a crowd favorite, decided on playing the kind of game coaches more than fans appreciate.

“That was directed by me,” Dantonio said, making sure MSU’s congregation knew the pastor was in charge and that ball-protection would be this game’s creed.

The Spartans were going to win this clash, if it were to be tucked away, with ingredients Dantonio, his lieutenants, and a bunch of kids looking for a new and improved profile in 2017 had early this fall decided could be secured in taut ways.

They again Saturday used defense, muscle, and a minimum of sloppiness, all on an afternoon and evening when ugly stuff might have happened, given that Saturday’s climate began with rain and ended with slop straight from the ski slopes.

Complete turnaround

What counted as this Currier and Ives portrait took on its ultimate artistry was this:

The Spartans are 8-3. They are one Saturday victory from numerically and spiritually reversing their 2016 dive-bomb of a season when they somehow concocted a 3-9 record a few months after making college football’s playoff semifinals.

This speaks to a program that decided last year’s earthquake could only be offset with similar upheaval in 2017.

So, the Spartans have made the ground shake again in East Lansing. Clean up at Rutgers next weekend -- nothing that can be assumed when a young team is still seeking its old Dantonio-grade flash and fury – and they’ll be 9-3 and headed somewhere toasty for the holidays.

“It’s a bounce-back year,” Dantonio said as he continued to thaw, and as the reality of this season’s comeback seemingly gripped him while answering media questions.

“I think workmanlike is the better word,” he said, after being asked if “astounding” could be used to describe MSU’s turnaround. “My biggest question was (after the OSU debacle) was: How would we respond?

“But we played with a lot of enthusiasm. That sideline was alive.”

Call it whatever — astounding, workmanlike — it’s a rather extraordinary story, this grabbing of all that had gone wrong with a football team in a few months, tossing it aside, and reclaiming a program’s old luster and stability.

Another chapter was penned Saturday in this football tale, which Saturday was colored by the snow spinning against Spartan Stadium’s lights, and by the hardscrabble football being played below by a team that has gotten back its identity.

“We’re very excited about win number eight,” Dantonio said, and in his voice you could detect that this was more than some cliched commentary on a single day’s triumph.

“It sets up win number nine,” he said. “It sets up win number nine. That’s what it does.”

By then, Dantonio had begun to warm from Saturday’s taste of the Arctic. His face was less red. You might have sensed a certain peace as this team’s reunion with respect is still being forged .