With an interception by Trae Waynes, and a raucous fist pump from coach Mark Dantonio, it was over — BR-21 Michigan State held on to beat BR-16 Nebraska, 27-22, showing the rest of the Big Ten that it’s the league’s big boy until someone says otherwise.
Of course, one could argue the top spot belongs to BR-6 Ohio State, who made light work of BR-57 Maryland over the weekend, 52-24; but the Terps aren’t the BR-16 Huskers, who went to East Lansing with a spotless 5-0 record — playoff aspirations intact.
They almost let it slip away with a sloppy fourth quarter, but the Spartans clamped down when had to, relying on coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s stellar defense to seal the deal. Ameer Abdullah was supposed to run wild, but instead, Narduzzi’s boys held the Huskers’ star running back to a paltry 1.9 yards per carry. He did get into the end zone twice … the Spartans will hear about that this week in practice.
The game wasn’t perfectly executed, but it was most certainly a hallmark moment for Dantonio, who embraces these make-or-break scenarios.
“It was in control,” said Dantonio, who watched a 27-3 lead nearly evaporate late in the fourth (per Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton). “We were in control of the football game. I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking about how it slipped away.”
Thanks to a 2014 Rose Bowl victory, a couple of Big Ten titles, and some wins over big-time rivals, Michigan State is evolving into the class of the Big Ten. When national analysts discuss the conference, Dantonio’s magic is often the primary point of interest. He took a team still reeling from a 4-8 finish to the John L. Smith era, picked it up, and made it stand on its own two feet. The days of using excuses as a crutch were over the moment Dantonio accepted the position in 2007.
In his first season, Dantonio led the Spartans to a 7-5 record and an appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Champs Sports Bowl isn’t exactly the most prestigious, and they lost to Boston College in that game, but a return to bowl-play after a three-year absence is a great start for a new head coach. Dantonio’s grand design began to show itself the next season, 2008. He scored a win at in-state rival Michigan and posted a 9-4 record with a loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
A bowl title and 10-win season would have been great, but it was a solid second season nonetheless.
Since then, he’s won at least 11 games in a season thrice, highlighted by a 13-1 success in 2013. Other than a 7-6 stumble in 2012, the Spartans have finished the regular season with the best record in their division in three of the last four years.
Coach Dantonio’s first job at Michigan State was as DB coach from 1995 to 2000 before he left to coordinate Ohio State’s defense from 2001 to 2003. He followed his stint in Columbus with his first head coaching job, at Cincinnati, from 2004 to 2006. The pedigree is there. With his Ohio roots, Dantonio frequently cleans up in Buckeyes country, taking 2- and 3-star recruits the Scarlet and Gray passed on and developing them into stars in East Lansing.
For example: He recruited Dayton native DT Jerel Worthy (2011), the 101st ranked defensive tackle in the 2008 draft class, and turned him into the 51st overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Another Ohioan, Greg Jones (2009), a son of Cincinnati and one of Dantonio’s first recruits, set the bar for MSU linebackers in the 2010s.
Of course, the Spartans are doing just fine recruiting at home as well. Hinckley’s own Connor Cook, a modestly-rated high school quarterback, set records on his way to Rose Bowl MVP honors this past New Year’s Day in Pasadena.
Owning the Big Ten starts on the recruiting trail; and Dantonio’s ability to infiltrate the Buckeye state has proved immeasurably valuable.
Catch Them if You Can
When you’re the team on top, you’re the team to beat. The Spartans are aware of their status and so is the rest of the conference. Huskers quarterback Tommy Armstrong is already thinking about a potential rematch, for all the Big Ten marbles.
“Honestly, it’s not the last time [Michigan State] is going to see us, I can promise you that,” he said Saturday night (per Hamilton). “We plan on going 11-1, making the Big Ten Championship. We plan on seeing Michigan State again.” Nebraska has to get there first though. It’s early in the season, sure, but the Huskers are currently tied with Purdue for third in the Big Ten West at 1-1, and the Spartans show no sign of slowing down.