Michigan State’s 2-2 start turns into character test

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There’s no doubt Mark Dantonio has changed the culture at Michigan State.

What once was one of the most frustrating programs in college football, Dantonio has turned into a national power.

The numbers back that up.

So do the Big Ten titles, the lofty national rankings, and a trip to last season’s College Football Playoffs.

But not every year goes as planned. Just ask Michigan pre-Jim Harbaugh, and Texas, Notre Dame and Florida. Even Nick Saban has had a three-loss season at Alabama, and that came three years after he went 7-6 in his first season.

It all makes Michigan State’s 2-2 start, including two straight losses to open Big Ten, understandable. It hardly makes it enjoyable, but there’s a process to building a program, and there will be ebbs and flows.

“I don’t want to be too critical, but some guys have been born on third,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “They haven’t experienced the pain that others have gone through to get to this place to where it’s at.”

There’s been plenty of pain in the Michigan State program. Years of underachieving during the days of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith aren’t that distant, but for a lot of Spartans fans, winning is the norm. It’s that culture Dantonio has developed in 10 seasons.

But it didn’t come easy. There was the 6-7 season in 2009 when many expected a step forward. And there was 2012 when Michigan State lost five games by a total of 13 points.

But that’s the pain that led to big seasons.

After the frustration of 2012, all that came next was the best three-year run in program history.

“Sometimes you need to go back and you need to take stock in where this place has come from, what has happened to get it to there,” Dantonio said. “It just doesn’t happen. Just because you show up here doesn’t mean that you automatically get a win. As the head coach you have to reexamine what you’re doing, reexamine how you’re doing it, and make some good decisions. As a player, you have to dig deep a little bit sometimes.

“But I think when you do dig deep, you build equity, you invest. And in that investment comes success. Sometimes you just think it’s going to happen just because you show up. It isn’t necessarily going to happen.”

That’s where this team finds itself with BYU coming to town Saturday.

The sky is falling to most, but those inside the locker room understand what’s still at stake.

They’re using a lot of the same words and phrases from 2012 — “find the inches,” and “our goals are in front of us” — but the key will be getting it done. For the seniors that are in their fifth year, they experienced 2012. They know what it takes to pull yourself out of that frustration.

“It was tough and I remember those seniors came to work each and every day,” said tight end Josiah Price, a freshman that season. “Things weren’t going our way we wanted and we were losing so many close games.

“We’ve just got to stick to the grind. We can’t get on each other too much and really have got to lift each other up and be there for each other. I’ve always said we win around here because of chemistry and I do think chemistry is tested when you face back-to-back losses and guys are wanting to point fingers at each other. We have to make sure to cut all that out and focus on getting better and getting a win this weekend.”

For everyone not in their fifth year, this is uncharted territory. Much is left to be told of how they will respond.

The key now is getting everyone to understand how to right the ship.

“You’re always frustrated when you lose and if you’re not there’s probably something wrong with your program,” Price said. “But it’s tough. We can’t look at the Big Ten championship scheme anymore. We’ve got to look at BYU and focus on BYU this weekend and get back to winning.”