By: Will Burchfield
Michigan State was expected to rebound in 2017, but to these heights?
Through six games, the Spartans are 5-1, undefeated in conference play and ranked No. 18 in the country — one spot ahead of rival Michigan. Last year’s 3-9 season is becoming a distant memory.
But to Mark Dantonio, that dismal campaign in some ways foretold a revival.
“Even last year as we went through the season, we were ahead in every football game. There were times when we just didn’t pull it out or the inches of a football game just caught up with us. Usually games are won or lost on the inches, and I sort of felt like we would regather ourselves and start taking a step-by-step process to this,” Dantonio told 97.1 The Ticket.
Indeed, Michigan State held a lead in all 12 of its games last season, sometimes down to the wire. Three of its losses were by four points or less, including a one-point defeat to then-No. 2 Ohio State in November. The Spartans certainly underachieved last year, but their 3-9 record belied their competitiveness.
They were also undone by injuries, a trend that’s turned around in 2017.
“We’re relatively healthy as a football team, so that’s been a positive,” Dantonio said. “Last year we lost some guys, and things happen.”
The Spartans’ problems in 2016 extended well beyond the football field, of course. Sexual assault charges against four former players cast a pall over the program and forced Dantonio to look himself in the eye.
It was a span of 12 months that demanded re-evaluation.
“I always change. I always critique what we do and try to evolve and try to make it better,” Dantonio said. “When you’re the head of the program you look at everything in the program, up and down and in between, and you’re judged as well. I don’t know if I ever took that response to it. I just said, ‘Okay, this is what we have to do. Roll up our sleeves and let’s go.'”
Mostly, Dantonio trusted in the character of his players and fellow coaches.
“When people knock you down at certain points in your life, you have to get back up, and I felt like we had the right kind of people around here that would do that. I think our staff has done a great job. We’re only halfway through this season, but right now we’re 5-1 and sitting good,” Dantonio said.
This year’s Spartans have proved their mettle in the past three weeks. Since dropping a home game to Notre Dame on Sept. 23, they’ve notched three straight Big 10 wins, including two on the road.
Dantonio particularly liked how his team responded against Minnesota last weekend following an emotional victory over Michigan. It’s one of the many trends he keeps track of as head coach.
“We’ve always tried to measure ourselves after a big game, in particular after the Michigan game. We’re 9-2 over 11 years, so we’ve done the job. I’ve always asked our guys, ‘Okay what are we going to do next? How are you going to present yourself after a big win or how are you going to handle adversity?’ That’s been a positive,” Dantonio said.
The Spartans will happily take it, after a year chalk full of negatives. Dantonio acknowledged he’s enjoying the 2017 season as much as any throughout his 11-year tenure head coach.
“I really am. We’ve got a young football team, so there’s a lot of energy and they enjoy playing with each other right now,” he said. “We just keep taking one step at a time.”
Michigan State hosts Indiana Saturday at 3:30.