Henning: Despite nail-biter, MSU football gives fans reason to be jubilant again

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Thermometers on Michigan State’s campus Tuesday were reporting a sultry 91 degrees.

And still it felt like football.

Felton Davis (18) and Matt Sokol (81) celebrate after Davis's two-point conversion catch late in the fourth quarter Friday night in East Lansing.

Trees were showing early hues of September yellow. Mark Dantonio, meanwhile, was dressed in his usual variation of green and white as he talked one game into a new season that shows MSU at 1-0 following a squeaker the Spartans won Friday against Utah State.

“We found a way to win, basically,” Dantonio said, and if you were seeking for a capsule comment on the legacy of Dantonio’s 12 seasons in East Lansing, it might be just that: The Spartans, during most seasons since Dantonio came aboard, have found a way to win — often.

Thoughts occurred, even ahead of Tuesday, that this football season and the usual merriment Dantonio’s teams bring to MSU’s galaxy was of particular need in 2018’s autumn.

It has been a harsh, brutal — and brutally embarrassing year — for Michigan State stemming from the Larry Nassar horror. Women were damaged to an unimaginable degree and scale. People lost their jobs, including an athletic director, Mark Hollis, who stepped down after he was for so long regarded as AD gold.

Not since an ugly NCAA probation wallop in 1976 has, it seemed, Michigan State so needed the refreshment football brings.

Even last Friday night, when the Spartans sputtered against a Utah State team that was better than previews suggested, and when MSU’s offensive line had fans nervous and when the linebackers this side of Joe Bachie didn’t play with great sparkle, the Spartans, as Dantonio reminded everyone Tuesday, “found a way to win, basically.”

Some of us who have followed this team for decades remember when winning wasn’t always accomplished so “basically.”

More: Dantonio: Michigan State got 'dose of reality' vs. Utah State

More: Michigan, Michigan State fall in AP Top 25 poll

It might not be a trend that extends into Saturday night. The Spartans have a desert date at Arizona State, which is 1-0 with new coach Herm Edwards, and lots of personnel from a team that last year finished 7-6 and had no business losing its head coach, Todd Graham, to one of the game’s more unjust firings, which is saying something given the rate at which coaches are heave-hoed.

But no matter Saturday night’s final score, what could be sensed Tuesday at Dantonio’s press briefing, and from conversations with MSU’s flock as last Friday night’s escape has been further processed and maybe better understood, is that there is a sense of peace with this Spartans football team.

It was tempting Tuesday to think in this context about how football season compares with the Spartans' basketball calendar. And how unfair it is to one Tom Izzo.

Izzo has such a nationally elite enterprise rolling at Breslin Center that anything this side of a Final Four ticket or national championship can be seen in East Lansing as a disappointment, and maybe in some cases, as even deflating.

Consider last year. Izzo’s team won 30 games. But the Spartans lost to Syracuse by two points in the regional and most of the fan base, to say nothing of Izzo, felt like jumping off the Kalamazoo Street Bridge.

That’s what basketball season can do to its audience. Either win it all, especially if you’re as good as Izzo’s guys tend to be, or everyone wants a cyanide pill.

Dantonio’s team gets one colossal break available to college football teams across the land.

They get to play a bowl game, assuming it has been a typical Dantonio autumn in East Lansing.

They might not have made it to the Big Ten championship showdown, which was the case last season. But a 9-3 record got them to the Holiday Bowl and to a pleasant finale in which the Spartans beat Washington State.

 Now, it’s a new season, and there is fresh, human-nature fretting among Spartans Nation.

Can those MSU down linemen, on either side of the ball, hold up? Will the running game percolate? Will the front seven turn into a barbed-wire gang that can steer MSU to something loftier than a Holiday Bowl?

And can the Spartans take down ASU, or will this game be a sign that maybe some nasty dates down the road — Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Northwestern, perhaps Nebraska or Purdue — won’t go as smoothly as planned, even with the Spartans having returned a truckload of talent in 2018?

“We’re always getting pushed up a ladder,” Dantonio said Saturday.

He’s right.

The price of success, the cost that continuity on the level Dantiono has introduced to East Lansing brings to the Skandalaris Football Center, is the reality that nothing apart from endless victories will ever be quite enough to satisfy a college football constituency.

“It’s a struggle out there,” Dantonio said. “It’s challenging. I don’t care who you play against, it’s challenging. But everybody’s going through these things. We’re just eking — trying to find those inches.”

You saw how the eking and inches paid off Friday night. With another victory.

How often that's the way autumn weekends go for the Spartans and for Dantonio, those guys who “basically” and collectively have written their own blueprint on getting it done.