Dantonio: Michigan State still can 'play our way into something special'
East Lansing – A week after forcing himself to get out of bed on Sunday morning, Mark Dantonio was in a much better mood on Saturday night.
The Michigan State coach admitted last week was tough bouncing back from a home loss to archrival Michigan. Things looked bleak for a banged-up Spartans team many were starting to doubt.
But, in the world of college football, things can change pretty quickly.
That seems to be the case for Michigan State (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten), which rode an impressive first start from redshirt freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi and another solid defensive performance to a 23-13 victory over Purdue, which had won four straight entering the game.
After the game, Dantonio said he felt like Michigan State, “enlarged our territory a little bit.”
On Sunday night, he expounded on that thought.
“If we fell back to 4-4, we’re not playing for as much as we move forward. We’re a little bit off the charts,” Dantonio said. “At 5-3, who knows what can happen. It sets up possibly winning up to 10 games, including a bowl game or beyond, I don’t know.”
It’s the beyond that might be stretching things. Just winning the Big Ten East is a stretch. It would almost certainly mean running the table and hoping for two Michigan losses. But it’s the feeling that has changed in one week, one that has the Spartans thinking big instead of being lost.
“Just watching football last night, in a good mood as a matter of fact, I saw so many different teams that were 5-3, 6-2 and have a tough schedule ahead of them. So, a lot of things can happen and we’re in a situation in November now where we can play our way into something special.
“But I thought that we made ourselves a little bit more, somewhat important. I thought we took a step forward and made people take notice. I think most people thought Purdue was going to come in here and play us out, if you looked at it nationally and based on what they were doing. So, it was a good moment for everybody.”
One of the key reasons it became a good moment for the Spartans was the play of Lombardi. Entering the game, he’d thrown just two passes in his career, both coming in mop-up time last week in the loss to Michigan.
But he never looked overwhelmed against the Boilermakers as he took over for the injured Brian Lewerke, and he said afterward that it only took a couple of throws for him to find a rhythm.
“I think Rocky is an emotional guy having his first start and I thought he brought a little extra,” Dantonio said. “He is like that. He is a dependable leader and studies the game hard and prepared himself for this moment. So, when his moment came he was ready.”
How Dantonio and his staff handle the quarterback situation moving forward will be worth watching over the final few weeks. Lewerke was outstanding last season in his first as Michigan State’s starter but has struggled in 2018. It hasn’t all been on him as the Spartans have lost more than their share of players on offense to injury, but he has thrown seven interceptions, the same number he threw all of last season.
And while it was hard to prove with sheer numbers, the offense had a spark with Lombardi. Dantonio is confident there will be no problems in the locker room, but he isn’t committing to either player at this point.
“In our quarterback room, (quarterback coach) Brad Salem does an outstanding job with those guys,” Dantonio said. “It’s a tight room and they’re all in it together. There is no animosity or things like that in that room.
“I thought Brian did a great job all week long, taking snaps and doing the things he could do and then also supporting Rocky. I’m in the quarterback meeting room a lot, and it’s a give-and-take-type relationship with those guys. Very, very positive.”
Whoever plays quarterback the rest of the way, there’s a chance they’ll have some more weapons soon. While receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor are back to 100 percent, sophomore Cody White was in uniform and could be back by next week, Dantonio said.
White hasn’t played since the fourth game of the season when he broke his left hand, and now it’s up to the doctors to clear him for this week’s trip to Maryland.
“Once they’re able to say, ‘Go,’ he’s able to do that,” Dantonio said. “Just waiting on that and they’ll make that decision, but emotionally he’s ready to play.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Spartans also are set to get sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott back. He hurt his knee in preseason camp and hasn’t played yet. He was available to play against Purdue, but Dantonio said he was held out to save the possibility of redshirting Scott.
“He’s been cleared to play,” Dantonio said. “He’ll be available this next week.”
While Michigan State won’t be 100 percent when it takes on Maryland, it’s the closest it’s been in a while, and has the Spartans feeling good.
“We go into November now with opportunities ahead of us,” Dantonio said. “You play well and good things happen and people take notice.”