Wojo: Michigan State has look, feel of top program

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — This is getting familiar for Michigan State, from the stage to the stakes. There’s nothing wide-eyed or wild-ride about it.

The Spartans have altered perceptions without changing their identity, a huge feat by itself. As it entered the Cotton Bowl on Thursday night against Alabama, Michigan State looked and sounded like a team that belonged. The Spartans have done things the past six years under Mark Dantonio few thought possible — and on a national scale, some haven’t totally accepted.

Now comes the tricky part for the Spartans, because only a dim opponent would overlook them any longer. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide was prepared to deliver its best shot, especially after it was upset by the Buckeyes in last year’s playoff. Heck, Michigan State has done the past few years what Alabama used to do regularly — win bowls, conference titles, huge road games.

Perceptions take a while to form and a while to change. But it’s safe to say, no matter what happens in this playoff, the Spartans have made lasting changes. Does it take a national championship to thrust them to fully elite status? Perhaps. But at the rate they’re stacking up 11-win seasons — five of the past six years — they’ve thrust themselves into a group of 10-15 power programs that expect to contend for a title most seasons.

Draw the elite line wherever you wish — 10 years of sustained success? Multiple playoff appearances? — but it’s clear Michigan State is toeing the line, and capable of leaping over it. ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit practically chuckled when asked about the outdated image of the Spartans.

“I think it’s amazing they still play with a chip on their shoulder, still play an underdog role, because I’m like, ‘How?’ ” Herbstreit said before Thursday night’s game. “You’re one of the best teams in the country. I mean, look at the basketball and football programs right now — you guys are spoiled, you have it rolling. You’re elite programs in both.”

Tom Izzo’s basketball program has been phenomenal for 20 years, and it’s not only rooted in the 2000 national championship. It’s because of the grinding consistency, all the Final Fours. Izzo altered perceptions without altering his team’s identity, and the Spartans are a national title favorite this year. And more and more, Izzo is landing the elite recruits he used to be unable to get, with a top-three class coming in.

Rapid rise

Dantonio is carving the same path, although it might be tougher with a few traditional Big Ten football powers lurking. But go back to 2007 when Dantonio replaced John L. Smith and try to imagine where the Spartans are now — four straight bowl victories, a three-year record of 36-4 and control of their biggest rivalries.

Dantonio didn’t just imagine it, he believed it, and then went ahead and built it.

“I don’t think (athletic director) Mark Hollis would’ve been able to predict that it’d be this good,” Herbstreit said. “Mark Dantonio deserves all the credit, because as a Big Ten guy growing up in that region, Michigan State was always a program, even when Nick Saban was there, that one week could beat anybody, and the next week could lose to anybody. It was such a roller coaster.

“They don’t do that anymore, and they haven’t in the last five or six years. It’s not just the wins, he has completely changed the mindset and the culture of who Michigan State is. Players aren’t getting in trouble, it’s a different team, it’s a different era. To be able to change 50-60 years of a football program to where it is now, I wouldn’t have been able to predict that.”

What you see now is a remarkably sound foundation, built on principles that form an identity. That’s probably why the Spartans haven’t become an immediate national darling. They don’t run a fancy spread offense with Heisman-worthy stars posting big numbers.

The Spartans block. And they tackle. And they don’t rely on one player, evidenced by their 17-14 victory in Columbus without Connor Cook. Dantonio craves and creates balance — between the passing game and the running game, between players having a fierce edge and being loose in tight games.

Selfless Spartans

Dantonio mentions chemistry so often, you expect him to show up in a lab coat with protective glasses. But to the players, it’s real.

“It shows during games,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “You’ll see some teams when things go wrong, they’ll be on the sideline screaming at each other, doing all that nonsense. You won’t see us doing that. I think it’s just bringing in the right guys, not having any selfish players.”

That’s the benefit of not loading up on star-splattered recruits, although Michigan State has landed its share of late, from Lawrence Thomas to Malik McDowell to LJ Scott. Scott is a highly touted back out of Ohio who has a chance to be another of the program’s great runners.

But the Spartans have a batch of good backs in Scott, Madre London, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton, and while they’re not necessarily equally talented, they are equally treated, another tenet of Dantonio’s program. To prepare for Alabama and Heisman runner Derrick Henry, the Spartan backs took turns in practice simulating Henry’s bruising style.

“Every one of those running backs would come down one period a day and work as a scout team player for our defense,” Dantonio said. “And you never heard any moaning or groaning about it. I think that’s a credit to them, their character, and their understanding of the big picture here.”

It’s a big picture capable of getting even bigger, a green-and-white montage looking more and more familiar on stages like this.