Niyo: Spartans taking playoff march one step at a time

John Niyo
The Detroit News
The Spartans are riding a nine-game winning streak, which is the second longest under Mark Dantonio.

East Lansing — Go ahead and book your hotel rooms. Plan your tailgates. Scalp your tickets, if you must.

Just don’t expect an RSVP from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio — or his team — anytime soon.

They’ll be busy counting their steps while the rest of us flip the calendar and count the days. There’s that annual high-stakes turf war in Ann Arbor a month from now and a trip to Nebraska for a night game Nov. 7. But there’s one remaining opponent on Michigan State’s schedule that’s currently ranked in the Top 25.

And all anyone wants to talk about in the wake of last weekend’s top-10 clash with Oregon at Spartan Stadium — and Michigan State’s 31-28 victory — is that potential No. 1-No. 2 showdown against Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 21.

If that win-win scenario for the Big Ten plays out, with both teams showing up at the ’Shoe sporting 10-0 records, it’d be the biggest regular-season game the conference has seen since Michigan and Ohio State met in similar fashion at the end of 2006.

And with both teams ranked in the top four nationally — No. 4 Michigan State got the two first-place votes that didn’t go to No. 1 Ohio State — the loser of that game could find its way into the four-team college football playoff.

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“It’s one of our goals, for sure,” senior quarterback Connor Cook said Tuesday when asked by nationally-syndicated radio host Dan Patrick if he expects to be in the final four at season’s end. “But we’re not gonna get ahead of ourselves.”

Not now, even after what Dantonio rightly termed “a program win” over then-No. 7 Oregon, with ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew in town, along with scores of high school recruits and an electric atmosphere in the stadium for a prime-time national TV audience.

Here and now

Dantonio began his weekly news conference Tuesday by thanking Michigan State’s fans for showing their stripes and screaming their approval against Oregon, something that has been a problem, at times, in recent years. Not for those big games under the lights, maybe, but for the ones against the lesser lights.

“But winning helps,” Dantonio said. “Winning certainly helps. If you want to be part of something special, then you stay, and you stay till the end.”

Yet for his team, it’s about staying in the present, something Cook was talking about Tuesday as well.

“Our main goal is to win our division in the Big Ten, make it to the Big Ten championship game, win that thing, and everything else will take care of itself,” Cook said. “Obviously, those are our goals and aspirations. And they’re our expectations. We have high expectations. But we’ve just got to take ’em one week at a time. It’s a 13-week process, and we’re on Week 3 — the third step.”

And one that Dantonio has gone to great lengths to avoid tripping over, admitting he’s had his team prepping for Air Force’s triple-option offense in practices going back to spring ball.

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The Falcons are No. 2 in the country in rushing offense (411 average), and even without starting quarterback Nate Romine — lost for the season to a knee injury last weekend — they’ll pose a challenge for the Spartans defense. Luckily for Dantonio, though, he has a defensive line coach in Ron Burton who spent a decade coaching at Air Force before coming to East Lansing in 2013.

“Huge advantage,” Dantonio agreed.

Huge upset? Yeah, of course, it would be. But just last week, we saw No. 6 Auburn struggle to beat Jacksonville State in overtime, No. 9 Notre Dame taken to the wire by Virginia and No. 16 Arkansas get hog-tied by Toledo.

“We understand the bottom can fall out at whatever you’re doing at any point in time,” Dantonio said. “That’s the way football is. You look across the country and you see that happening. We need to guard against those things and play to our utmost ability. That’s all I care about: Play as hard as you can play, play the best you can play, come prepared. If you do that, things usually work out. If you don’t, things usually don’t.”

Unblemished vs. underdogs

Yet, of all the things people seem to think about this Michigan State program — all the lingering misperceptions — this one’s near the top of the list, not far below the spelling of the head coach’s name. Michigan State’s not a team that’s upset-prone, despite what you might think.

Not once in the Dantonio era has a ranked Michigan State team lost to an unranked opponent. And Saturday will mark the 30th such opportunity.

“I’ve said this before: I think the chemistry creates the culture here of energy,” said Dantonio, whose teams have won 28 of their last 31 games overall. “Our seniors have done a great job here of looking at things and being mature in terms of how they approach things.

“Coaches can talk all they want. If your seniors recognize a situation they’re in and can basically relay that to the rest of their football team, I think good things sort of happen.”

So while it doesn’t take much of an optimist to see what could happen this season, for the Spartans, that’s sort of beside the point at the moment.