Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio reminds us he’s best coach in Michigan

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We look back at five of the biggest plays from Michigan State’s 14-10 upset of No. 7 Michigan at Michigan Stadium on a wet and wild night in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. Video by Marlowe Alter, Detroit Free Press
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It’s all so clear now, after Saturday night in the rain, when Michigan State rolled into Ann Arbor and reminded everyone why they’ve owned this rivalry for the better part of a decade.

Or it least it should be, and maybe should have been, if we’d actually been paying attention to what Mark Dantonio’s built in East Lansing.

If we had, we might have seen this 14-10 victory over U-M coming. Oh, not the score, necessarily, but the win.

It’s what Dantonio does.

As he said late Saturday night: “We’ve done it eight times. I don’t know why there is a lot of doubt.”

Don’t think for a minute he didn’t know what he was saying. He did. And he enjoyed it. The slight smile gave it away. So did the tone in his voice.

Dantonio’s surely had more important wins at MSU. The Rose Bowl comes to mind. So does the Big Ten title game that propelled his Spartans to the College Football Playoff.

Maybe even the first time he beat these Wolverines matters more if we’re ranking the building blocks of his legacy. Yet it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying win than Saturday night’s.

Not just because of last year’s 3-9 record and a winter of unsavory headlines. But because of the questions about whether he could rebuild this thing once more.

Because of all the doubts.

Come on, you know you had some. You know you wondered how long it would be before the Spartans would beat the Wolverines again.

What matters is that his players didn’t. They believed.  

Remember that Dantonio made a name for himself and his program by upending teams he was supposed to have little shot of beating, by instilling in his (mostly) under-recruited guys that they could compete with anyone.

It’s been his greatest trick.

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Well, he did it again. By starting his game prep for Saturday night last November, right after the worst season of his head coaching career.

That preparation kept up through the winter, and into the spring, when he realized that the culture he’d shaped needed reshaping. They hadn’t just lost last season because of quarterback struggles, or the lack of a pass rush, or inconsistent offensive line play.

They’d lost because they weren’t together.

No way does that kind of locker room survive this kind of night. On the road. In a downpour. Fighting to gain a single, simple first down in the second half with U-M’s defense ramping up. Knowing one mistake would turn the game.

“We’re so much closer (now),” said Brian Allen, the senior center, “so much more of a team. It’s just that attitude that we aren’t going to accept losing.”

That was clear on the first series of the game, when U-M took the opening kickoff and began blasting MSU’s front off the ball. Six yards. Then 5 yards. Then 8 yards.

Down the field they went. Until they got inside the 20, and the Spartans began pushing back. MSU held U-M to a field goal.

It felt like a statement, a stance, if you will. It’s not going to be that easy. And it wasn’t.

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Before the rain began to fall in the second half, MSU looked like the better team. They moved the ball more efficiently, and clearly had the better quarterback.

Brian Lewerke didn’t amass gaudy numbers, but he made plays. Just enough to keep U-M’s defense guessing.

None more than the screen MSU dialed up in the second quarter, when Lewerke dropped back, faked a handoff, stood still, waited for another second, then gently lobbed a pass to Madre London, who followed Allen and another lineman 16 yards into the end zone.

They had so much room, said Allen, “that we were jogging.”

Yes, jogging.

They were dissecting one of the more complex defenses in college football. And if it hadn’t been for the rain, it might have continued.

Dantonio, of course, was quick to credit the Wolverines’ playbook and talent, then layer the compliment with some more shade.

“They are extremely well-coached,” he said of U-M. “They ran 40 different formations in the first half. Forty. They are extremely talented … but we have some guys, too.”

In other words, he was saying, Harbaugh isn’t the only one who can coach in the state. And U-M isn’t anyone’s little brother.

Yes, there’s that phrase again. Even though it’s a decade old, it’s never gone away. Lewerke admitted as much after the game.

“Coach D uses that for motivation,” he said.

And did again this past week. Not that he needed to. His team had been ready for this night, and this chance, for months.

It’s why Dantonio is now 8-3 in this rivalry. It’s why we should never doubt him again.

 

 

 

 

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