By: Will Burchfield
Mike Hart’s words echo in the Michigan State locker room before every game against Michigan — literally.
Since Hart famously dubbed the Spartans his “little brother” after a 28-24 comeback win over Michigan State in 2007, Mark Dantonio and his players have used it as fuel.
It stoked another Michigan State win on Saturday night, 14-10 at The Big House, the Spartans’ eighth win in their last 10 games versus the Wolverines.
For Dantonio, there’s no letting Hart’s verbal jab die.
“It’s definitely talked about. It’s definitely played before the game and something that motivates us,” said quarterback Brian Lewerke. “I think Coach D uses it very well for motivation for us. We definitely don’t like that comment, so we try to play to our best ability.”
Almost as memorable as Hart’s comment was Dantonio’s reply. On the ensuing Monday, Dantonio, then in his first season as head coach, told Michigan to watch its back, endearing himself to Spartan nation.
“I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall. … They want to mock us, I’m telling them, it’s not over. It’ll never be over here. It’s just starting. … Their time will come.”
Dantonio’s words have since proved prophetic.
Considering the Spartans’ recent success in the rivalry, Lewerke was asked where he thinks Michigan State sits at the “kid’s table” in comparison to Michigan.
“I’m not going to say anything like Hart said, but I think it’s definitely good to get the win. Obviously, Coach D has done a great job of playing against these guys, he’s definitely had their number. I’m just very happy to get the win,” said Lewerke.
When Dantonio was named head coach in 2007, he was clear about his desire to level things with the Wolverines, who had won nine of the last 11 games versus the Spartans. It’s safe to say he’s delivered.
He almost bristled at the notion that Saturday’s win was validation of what Michigan State has achieved against its rival of late. Validation? Versus Michigan? The Spartans are past the point of needing it.
“We’ve done it eight times, so I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt. We’ll do it again, or somebody else will do it again at some point in time, but for this year that’s the way it went down,” said Dantonio.
Asked if he ever thought he’d win eight of his first 11 games versus Michigan as head coach, Dantonio said, “I tell our football team, every player that comes here, to dream big, and I’m no different than that. I’m going to dream big. We’ve been in the playoffs, we’ve won three Big 10 championships and we’ve beaten our rival. We’ve fallen down in other areas, but we’re going to try to always rise up.”
Michigan State suffered through a 3-9 season in 2016, and then found itself embroiled in controversy when four of its now former players were charged with sexual assault. All of this made Saturday’s win that much more satisfying for Dantonio and his team.
Asked where it ranks in his career, Dantonio raised his hand over his head and said, “It’s up there, it’s way up there. We battled some adversity last year. Obviously we needed to bounce back, and we made a commitment to do that as a football team and a program way back in the spring.
“We had some different things going on in the second semester as well, but I knew that we’d rally up and I knew that our football team and our program would basically come back to the top. That’s what we’re trying to do, step by step.”
Lewerke, who ran for one touchdown and threw for another on Saturday night, called it the “the best win I’ve ever had, probably in my life.”
Safety Andrew Dowell, who had two interceptions, said it was a dream-big moment, the kind Dantonio tells his players to believe in.
“We’re not going to act like this is just another game. This is a crucial win for us,” he said. “I’m excited we were able to pull it out.”
Dowell added the Big 10 — and the country, for that matter — should be put on notice.
“I absolutely think we made a statement. I think people are going to start to pay attention a little bit, but we know it’s one week at a time. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and then get ready for next week,” he said.
No. 7 Michigan had a chance to pull the game out of the fire with a last-second Hail Mary from midfield. The ball hung up in the air for a long time, and several Wolverines had a chance to catch it, but the Spartans batted it down in the end zone.
What was going through Dantonio’s mind when he saw the ball hit the ground?
“‘Wow, look at that,'” he deadpanned. “I’m a real emotional guy sometimes.”
Then he smiled and said, “The wins, they’re high, but sometimes the losses hurt you a little bit more. I was just very proud of our football team. I enjoy seeing our players happy, I enjoy seeing our Spartan nation happy. That’s what drives me. I get personal satisfaction out of this, don’t get me wrong, but I enjoy watching other people celebrate.”