Salvaging season adds weight to more-than-a-game game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — “They all count as one.”

It’s a phrase Mark Dantonio has used over the years, echoing the thoughts of one of his predecessors, George Perles.

The idea is no game is bigger than another. A win on one particular day doesn’t assure you one the next. The same goes for a loss.

But there is one week a year Dantonio throws that mantra out the window, the same way Perles did. Michigan-Michigan State week.

And that week is here for the 109th time.

“You know, ever since I’ve come here, I’ve never shied away from this football game,” Dantonio said. “I’ve never said this is not an important game. I’ve never said, ‘Hey, we’ll get to it when we get to it.’ I’ve always maintained our focus needs to be on that game a little bit more than usual, and that’s never going to change.”

That’s been clear from the second Dantonio took the Michigan State job in November 2006. At that point, Michigan State had lost five straight to Michigan and nine of 11. On top of that, the Spartans were mired in mediocrity. They’d endured three straight losing seasons and been to a bowl twice after Nick Saban left after the 1999 season.

As Dantonio took the helm, there was little indication things would turn around.

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In Dantonio’s first season, however, the Michigan game gave in indication of where Michigan State was headed.

After he was hired, Dantonio placed a clock in the Michigan State locker room counting down the days to the Michigan game. And when it came time, the Spartans measured up, building a 24-14 lead over No. 15 Michigan.

It appeared Dantonio was going to join Saban, his former boss, as the only Michigan State coaches to win their first meeting against the Wolverines. Michigan, however, rallied, to dash Michigan State’s hopes.

That day, though, gave life to “Little Brother” — that’s how Michigan running back Mike Hart described Michigan State — and the next day Dantonio signaled the beginning of the resurgence that saw the Spartans win seven of the next eight.

“Let’s just remember pride comes before the fall,” Dantonio said. “This game is an important game. They wanna mock us all, they wanna mock us, I’m telling ’em it’s not over. So they can print all that all over their locker room. It’s not over. It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.”

What started has been a dominant run in the series that has coincided with a rise to prominence not only in the Big Ten, but as one of the elite teams in college football.

Much of that was tied to the success against Michigan, and through it all, Dantonio has maintained that same emphasis on beating the Wolverines. Some games have been close and some have been physical beatings. The Spartans pulverized the Wolverines in 2013 by holding them to minus 48 rushing yards, and in 2014, after Michigan players drove a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before the game, Dantonio added a late touchdown in response in a 35-11 victory.

Afterward, he didn’t hold back.

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“You might as well come and say what you’re feeling at some point in time; I can only be diplomatic for so long,” Dantonio said. “The little brother stuff, all the disrespect, it didn’t have to go in that direction. We’ve tried to handle ourselves with composure and it doesn’t come from the coach. It comes from the program. Throwing a stake down in our backyard and coming out here like they’re all that, you know, it got shoved the last minute and a half.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t count as just one. The only problem is that Michigan State needs Saturday’s game for something different. It needs it to salvage a lost season as the Spartans losing skid sits at five.

The Wolverines are the No. 2 team in the nation and are heavy favorites. Many of their players were around for the whippings in 2013 and 2014, and even more experienced last season’s crushing loss on the final play.

They’re ready for some payback, and if it happens to put the Spartans out of their misery, so be it. The question for the Spartans is can this be a turning point?

“I guess the main focus is let’s see where we’re at at the end of this football game,” Dantonio said. “I still think that we have won our share, certainly, and that we’ve tried to represent ourselves in this rivalry and to measure up, and that was the first thing that I said we had to do when I came here is we had to measure up. That didn’t mean win; we had to measure up. And I think we’ve done that.”

Time will tell where this season’s meeting will fit in the overall series. Will it be a one-season aberration if Michigan wins or a sign of shift in power? Will it be one last swing from the proud champion if Michigan State wins or will it be a sign things are moving along just fine?

Again, only time holds that answer, but one thing is certain: This is not just another game for Dantonio.

“This one maybe just is a little bit more because it’s in state and it’s a rivalry game,” Dantonio said. “And because it means so much more maybe to not just our fans but maybe to the players who have played in it in the past and the overall general feeling that we have for each other.”

He paused and a crooked smile appeared on his face.

“That sense of love,” he said. “Or lack thereof.”

Starting point

Since the 2007 “little brother” game, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has dominated the Michigan series:

2007, Michigan 28-24

2008, Michigan State 35-21

2009, Michigan State 26-20 (OT)

2010, Michigan State 34-17

2011, Michigan State 28-14

2012, Michigan 12-10

2013, Michigan State 29-6

2014, Michigan State 35-11

2015, Michigan State 27-23