East Lansing — There’s just something about Michigan State and big games.
More specifically, there’s something about how coach Mark Dantonio gets his team ready to play against the top teams in the country, regardless of how the Spartans’ season is going at that point.
Saturday afternoon at Penn State was the latest example as a reeling Michigan State team walked into Happy Valley and knocked off the then-No. 8 ranked Nittany Lions, the 10th time a Dantonio-coached Michigan State team has beaten an opponent ranked the top 10 of the Associated Press poll.
The Spartans did it twice last season — winning at No. 7 Michigan and beating No. 7 Penn State at home — and will get a shot to match that total this week when No. 6 Michigan visits Spartan Stadium.
More often, the wins are close, hard-fought games that come down to a couple of big plays late in the game. It happened last week with Brian Lewerke connecting with Felton Davis for a 25-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to play while other times it’s been late field goals, like last season vs. Penn State and at No. 2 Ohio State in 2015.
In the 2015 Big Ten Championship game, it was an epic 22-play drive that ended with an LJ Scott touchdown run against No. 4 Iowa.
To Dantonio, none of these things are random.
“We try and put that into our thought process,” Dantonio said. “But at the end of the day, we gotta have players that can make the plays and think collectively on their feet and make good decisions. And make the plays — you have to make the plays.”
No. 24 Michigan State has made their share of plays in big games. Scott was the hero against Iowa. Kyler Elsworth made the huge fourth-down stop against No. 5 Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl and, of course, there was the Rocket play against No. 4 Wisconsin in 2011 when Kirk Cousins’ final heave bounced off B.J. Cunningham and into the arms of Keith Nichol, who bulled his way over the goal line on the final play.
Davis is the latest to join that group.
“I was just trying to make a play for my team,” Davis said. “I had to put the team on my back.”
The Spartans were happy to have Davis when it mattered most as the senior had seven of his eight catches in the second half.
“I love Felton,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “He put it all on the line. Felton is an animal.”
The true common denominator through Michigan State’s success against top teams, though, is Dantonio. Overall, he’s 10-9 against the top 10 but 10-5 since 2011.
He won four in a row at one point and seven of eight before Michigan State dropped four straight, beginning with the loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
But last season’s two wins coupled with last week’s victory have given the Spartans three straight. And, entering this week’s matchup with their biggest rival, they believe they have just the right guy leading the way. The same guy that wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops last week by calling fake punts, fake field goals and telling his defense it had to get one more stop in the final two minutes.
“Coach D is going to take chances,” Willis said. “He's a champion. He has championship DNA. We are going to back him up, that's our guy. We go as he goes, and he had the confidence and felt like we had the opportunity to make the play and we did.
“It’s football, it's fun, there's nothing to it. We follow our head guy.”
Mark Dantonio is 10-5 since 2011 against teams ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll:
Oct. 22, 2011: No. 15 MSU 37, No. 4 Wisconsin 31
Dec. 7, 2013: No. 10 MSU 34, No. 2 Ohio State 24 (Big Ten championship)
Jan. 1, 2014: No. 4 MSU 24, No. 5 Stanford 20 (Rose Bowl)
Sept. 6, 2014: No. 3 Oregon 46, No. 7 MSU 27
Jan. 1, 2015: No. 7 MSU 42, No. 4 Baylor 41 (Cotton Bowl)
Sept. 12, 2015: No. 5 MSU 31, No. 7 Oregon 28
Nov. 21, 2015: No. 9 MSU 17, No. 2 Ohio State 14
Dec. 5, 2015: No. 5 MSU 16, No. 4 Iowa 13 (Big Ten championship)
Dec. 31, 2015: No. 2 Alabama 38, No. 3 MSU 0 (CFP semifinal)
Oct. 29, 2016: No. 2 Michigan 32, MSU 23
Nov. 19, 2016: No. 2 Ohio State 17, MSU 16
Nov. 26, 2016: No. 8 Penn State 45, MSU 12
Oct. 7, 2017: MSU 14, No. 7 Michigan 10
Nov. 4, 2017: No. 24 MSU 27, No. 7 Penn State 24
Oct. 13, 2018: MSU 21, No. 8 Penn State 17