Wojo: MSU’s Dantonio flying high under the radar

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — He says it with a slight smile that could be construed as a sneer. And if it is, that’s probably fine with him.

“What makes an expert?” Mark Dantonio said. “I would ask that politely — what makes everybody an expert? We know what we can do. We understand who we are.”

Michigan State’s program under Dantonio has risen defiantly, defying odds and perceptions, and yes, defying the experts more than once. You even can argue Dantonio is the best big-game coach in college football, especially when you factor in expectations. The Spartans are the only Big Ten team to have beaten Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. Nick Saban is the premier coach overall, but the odds are never, ever stacked against the Crimson Tide.

That’s the unique realm of Dantonio, who has a remarkable record but is more renowned because the “experts” rarely seem to see it coming. A touchdown underdog last week at Notre Dame? In retrospect, based on what? The Spartans shredded the flimsy Irish defense, backed off too soon, and still stomped to a 36-28 victory.

After a weekend that also saw Ohio State roll Oklahoma, we’re reminded of two persistent truths: Do not pick against Dantonio or Meyer in a big game on the road. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Michigan State has won six of its past seven meetings against ranked opponents, with six on the road. In the past year, it went on a Rival Rampage, winning at Michigan (as a touchdown underdog), at Ohio State (as a two-touchdown underdog) and at Notre Dame (as a touchdown underdog).

Now, Michigan State is ranked eighth — still behind Ohio State and Michigan — as it opens the Big Ten season at home against No. 11 Wisconsin. And if we’ve run out of ways to quantify how the Spartans have risen, consider Dantonio said Tuesday this game is much bigger than the one against the fabled Irish, and he’s absolutely right.

Reasons for success

So how does it keep happening? How can Michigan State be 14-3-1 against the spread in its past 18 games as an underdog (12-6 straight up)? No, the betting lines don’t really matter, except to illustrate a perception that doesn’t die.

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I asked Dantonio if there’s some method he uses to get his team to hit the highest pitch under the brightest lights. He responded in his typical straightforward manner, a contrast to his players’ big-game fervor.

“I’m not a big rant-and-rave guy beforehand,” Dantonio said. “I just tell guys, hey, you got to get with yourself, man. ... You better be ready to play because you’ll be tested at the highest level on game day. There are other guys jumping around. I say, save all that for the game, let them get all tired out before the game.”

The Spartans aren’t underdogs this week, although you can expect another tight tussle against the Badgers. Michigan State’s recent history — 40-5 since 2013 — is staggering, and while it didn’t overcome the odds in the playoffs last year, there’s not a team in the country that would’ve beaten Alabama.

As one of those alleged experts, I’ve mulled several theories for Dantonio’s big-game success, and why it’s sometimes underestimated:

■ Since suffering a mild heart attack after the “Little Giants” play beat Notre Dame in overtime in 2010, Dantonio has a slightly altered view on life, less likely to waste time and emotion obsessing about setbacks, or panicking in close games. He has talked about perspective, although he’s still a picture of grim-faced intensity on the sideline.

■ Because the Spartans returned to power just in the past decade, perceptions haven’t caught up to accomplishments, and talent gets overlooked by some opponents and “experts.” It has merit when you consider this: Michigan State has been an underdog in all nine — all nine — bowls under Dantonio, winning four.

■ The physical brand of Spartans football — punishing defense and running game — doesn’t light up scoreboards. But it sure travels well, and isn’t reliant on otherworldly performances by one person, such as the quarterback. That’s how a team goes into Columbus and wins with its backup quarterback.

■ And finally, a simple explanation that might be the most relevant: Michigan State has more talent than people realize. Dantonio preaches continuity, and has an excellent staff that knows exactly what type of players it wants and how to develop them. He doesn’t grab for the shiniest pieces, but not so quietly, Michigan State has upgraded its recruiting. According to Rivals.com, these are the Spartans national rankings from 2012 to 2016: 42, 47, 22, 22, 18.

On solid ground

That’s a steady rise, and one of the main reasons Michigan State is ceding no ground to Ohio State and Michigan. Dantonio has established his program, knows what he has and what he wants, and is a superb leader and motivator. He’s also more insightful and discerning than he lets on, and the half-smile, half-sneer is an effective disarming technique.

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Dantonio doesn’t attract attention with quips and controversy, but with deeds and drive. He was asked about the recent spate of exuberant college football players dropping the ball before crossing the goal line. He said he’s addressed the gaffe with his team, although he doesn’t understand why it happens.

“I just think people are so excited to get there,” Dantonio said, “they forget they’re not quite there yet.”

It’s a sound lesson with broader applications, something Dantonio never lets his team forget. Finish the big play, and then start preparing for the next one.