When Mark Dantonio took over as the head coach at Michigan State, he had a vision. It was a slow-burn type of plan, but that’s how teams get to the summit and stay there, rather than flashing as a light in the rearview mirror, lost because of gimmicky, get-rich-quick schemes.
The Spartan program has always had talent, but there once was a time when the athletes on the field seemed more concerned with the individual rather than the sum of all the parts. Leading up to Dantonio, Michigan State would put together decent teams wrought with inconsistency and an inability to climb the mountain. The Spartans could not plant a flag and let the college football world know that they had arrived.
Consider that flag planted Saturday night.
Much like Stanford under Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw, this Spartan program was built by Dantonio with toughness and resilience in mind. The first thing that had to be instilled was a change in culture. With his glare staring across the sidelines, he brought a level of accountability that slowly turned a flaky team into a winner. A team which had been more concerned with pulling the big upset — an erratic hunter which would get up for one or two games a season — became the hunted.
Yet, for all that Michigan State has achieved in recent times, the next step had not been taken. Nine years after Dantonio’s arrival, despite being an annual staple of the top 10, the big signature moment was still missing from the puzzle. Season after season, the Spartans found themselves just barely on the outside looking in at a shot at the ultimate prize. Wins over Stanford, Oregon, Baylor and Ohio State substantially improved the program’s reputation, but the big one — a BCS title game appearance or a College Football Playoff berth — had not yet become a reality.
Then Saturday night happened.
It looked bleak for most of the game. Iowa didn’t control the game, but it had the lead for the majority of it. The Hawkeyes went toe-to-toe with Michigan State for the better part of four quarters, but true to what Dantonio has stamped on the hearts of his players, the Green and White just kept plugging and found a way, much as it did in Columbus, Ohio, two weeks ago.
Now it’s time to reach even higher. When the College Football Playoff committee meets and ultimately unveils the pairings for the semifinals on Sunday, there’s little doubt that Michigan State will be one of those four teams. A Big Ten championship is fine and good, and any trophy is great to bring back to campus, but a shot to be the last team standing on a podium with a national championship behind your name trumps anything and everything.
To do it, the Spartans will have to do much of the same. The physical and athletic front seven will need to play as hard — with an imposing edge — as it has since the Ohio State game. The offensive line has been improving and getting healthy, and will need to continue to wear down the opposing defensive front in the second half on New Year’s Eve. Connor Cook will need to be healthy, throwing some lasers down the field, and the Spartans will need to get the proverbial breaks all championship teams seem to get.
The fact that we are talking about the needs of this Michigan State program in a national championship context says that Dantonio has brought the program where he envisioned it back on November 27, 2006.
However, there’s more work to do.
We’ll know more about who the Spartans are playing Sunday afternoon, but you can bet they’ll be a tough out for anyone. It’ll be a donnybrook because of the fight in this team, and because of the character of the individuals that make up the sum of what Dantonio has put together during his tenure in East Lansing.
This is a big win for the program and likely the biggest Mark Dantonio has steered this team through, but it’s not as big as the next one, and won’t be as big as the one after that if the Spartans continue to check goals off their list.
The Michigan State Spartans reached high on Saturday night to grab the spotlight, and they’ll try to reach even higher as we all ring in the New Year.