Wojo: Dantonio's Spartans grapple with growing possibilities
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio probably loves it. And not coincidentally, probably hates it.
The Spartans are in position to get their due, all their due, even if they think it's overdue. Amid all the quirky scenarios, one thing came into sharper focus Tuesday night when the playoff committee revealed its latest rankings. Michigan State moved up to No. 5, just behind No. 4 Iowa, which basically sets up the Big Ten championship game as a playoff play-in.
Oh, Notre Dame and Baylor still lurk, but this is unfolding as expected. Of course, Michigan State can't overlook Penn State, and that'll keep Dantonio on edge. If Connor Cook can't play Saturday because of his sore right shoulder, the Spartans could face another tough slog with backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry against the Nittany Lions' solid defense.
But just when you think there's a chance — the slightest chance — the Spartans (10-1) could get (gasp) satisfied with all their success, there's another level to hit. They can clinch the East division, which would send them to the championship game against Iowa. That used to be the biggest realistic prize but not anymore, not with fresh opportunities and larger challenges.
For instance, this week was pegged as a Michigan-Ohio State celebration, an historic reenactment with Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. The Big Ten wanted more luster and bluster, so here it was, right? Well, sort of. So far, the Spartans' division rivals haven't hindered them, but helped them. By beating the Buckeyes in Columbus 17-14, and beating the Wolverines in Ann Arbor 27-23, the Spartans gained enough juice that they're almost certain to make the playoff if they win their next two.
Notre Dame remains the biggest threat but fell to No. 6, and has a daunting matchup at Stanford. And don't ignore the power of the Big Ten, which has four teams in the top 10, including No. 8 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan.
To the final bell
You wonder how the Spartans do it, how they keep chewing through obstacles to go 34-4 the past three seasons, how they seldom let up or let down. Then you look at their style of play and listen to their coach, and you're reminded why.
For Dantonio, it's never over, something he once famously said and now tirelessly shows. The climb is never over, the game is never over until it strikes :00, illustrated with amazing clarity by Michigan State's final-play victories over Ohio State and Michigan. The Spartans have won eight of their past nine games decided by a touchdown or less, and while the national perspective might view that as a sign of vulnerability, Dantonio sees it as something else, and protects it fiercely.
Your intrepid columnist wasn't looking for a fiery response — trust me, you'll know when I'm trolling — when I asked Dantonio Tuesday how the program has changed, so that the Spartans now pull out so many dramatic victories. Not a riveting question, but certainly not a challenge to who the Spartans are, or used to be.
"How many years ago are we talking now, when you want to use the Same Old Spartans type of thing, because that's not in existence," Dantonio said, his eyes flashing. "Hasn't been in existence for a long time. How many games have we won around here on the last play of the game? Seven? So that's happened for quite a while. I think that's a product of our environment."
Let the record show, SOS didn't come from me, not that it matters. It's in Dantonio's soul to swat perceived slights and it's brilliant, really. His players feed off it, and several expounded on it after beating heavily favored Ohio State.
This relentless mentality sprouted after the 2012 season, when the Spartans lost five games by a touchdown or less. That's why it's fascinating, and after his annoyance passed, Dantonio explained it further.
"That's the belief system with our players, our seniors and our playmakers," Dantonio said. "Our guys don't give up on each other, but we make plays. It's part of the culture here hopefully. Hopefully. It needs to stay part of the culture."
Here to stay
It's a culture in which motivated players — some not heavily recruited — trust they'll get a shot, as long as they give maximum effort all the way to the end. Now, when the game is tight in the fourth quarter, who doesn't expect the Spartans to pull it out? Somehow, the Spartans under Dantonio play as if they're still waiting for an anointing that already arrived.
I've said it about 8,000 times but I'll say it again. There's little doubt Meyer and Harbaugh will have their programs challenging for the Big Ten title most seasons. And there's little doubt Dantonio's team will keep standing in the way, standing its ground.
It's the same mentality we see in Tom Izzo's basketball program, and that's no coincidence. Dantonio and Izzo exchange ideas all the time, and in many ways, the teams look almost identical, right down to their rankings and aspirations. The football team is fifth; the basketball team is third in the polls.
Dantonio talked about getting hired in November 2006 and watching Izzo's team practice. No one could know it then, but something was forming. We see the product now, but he relishes the process.
"I watched how they came down to the end of the game, and how they played it out and would win at the buzzer," Dantonio said. "I saw how they won games down the stretch, and there was a message there. When I saw the competitiveness on the basketball court and the communication between the players, it's something you want to emulate."
No school in the country has its two showcase teams in position to win national titles like the Spartans do. Izzo's team has been up there a long time. Dantonio's team is continuing the transition from upstart to big dog, and it can be difficult.
Dantonio has talked all year about taking every opponent's best shot. But then the Spartans go to Columbus and get treated like an afterthought — by fans, by media, maybe by the Buckeyes themselves.
The Spartans probably will get the Nittany Lions' best effort. It might even come down to the final possession or the final play. If it does, the Spartans know what to do.