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  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Winter 2014

In his seventh season as head coach, Mark Dantonio leads MSU to the Big Ten championship and the “Promised Land” of Pasadena, CA.

In one of the greatest triumphs in MSU football history, the Spartans defeated Ohio State 34-24 in the conference championship game in Indianapolis—marking the first time a team went 9-0 in Big Ten play. To boot, MSU won every conference game by double digits.

Before the season, Big Ten Network analysts picked four teams they thought could win the division—none of them being MSU. The narrative by some media and fan bases was that after two great years, Spartan football would drift back to mediocrity. But after MSU pounded archrival Michigan into submission 29-6, ground out a solid 41-28 win at Nebraska and secured the division title with a 30-6 win at Northwestern, the narrative changed dramatically.

“With each successive game, with each victory, what was previously a curious buzz surrounding Michigan State has steadily grown into a menacing roar,” writes Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp, who calls MSU competing for the Big Ten championship “the new normal.”

In 2013 the Spartans did more than find the missing “inches” from last season—they turned them into yards and became the only team in Big Ten history to go 9-0 in the conference while winning every game by a double digit margin. An identity has emerged for Dantonio football—stop the run first on defense, attack with discipline and control time of possession with a steady, balanced offense. Dantonio prefers to grind out wins through sustained physical dominance rather than blitzkrieg strikes. His special teams are reliable, yet very capable of trick plays that usually work and have cute names, such as Charlie Brown (vs. Nebraska) and Hey Diddle Diddle (vs. Iowa).

The defense enjoyed national prominence by leading the nation in several categories, including total defense, rushing defense and yards Allowed per play. MSU also led the nation in time of possession. The win over Michigan on Nov. 2 typified MSU’s modus operandus. The so-called “Spartan Dawgs,” led by senior linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, limited the Wolverines to minus 48 yards rushing and just six points—way under their 42. 4 average—while collecting seven sacks and an interception. Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun and members of the “No Fly Zone” defensive back- field—Jim Thorpe Award finalist Darqueze Dennard, Trae Waynes, Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond— caused key turnovers. The MSU offense dominated the trenches while methodically out-gaining the Wolverines 394 to 168 yards. Freshman kicker Mike Geiger was a perfect 3 for 3 on kicks, while senior punter Mike Sadler always threatened with his knack for placing punts inside the 10-yard line.

Respect for MSU’s football program, however, came grudgingly. It took until mid-November for the Spartans to ascend into the Top 14 in BCS rankings, until December to crack the Top Ten. Winning did earn the players due publicity from television programs like ESPN’s GameDay and the Big Ten Network’s The Journey.

Early on, such success seemed remote. MSU’s offense sputtered and lacked “explosive” plays. Half of MSU’s first six TDs were scored by defensive star-emergent Calhoun. But as sophomore quarterback Connor Cook gained experience, as the offensive line began to gel and as receivers learned to hold onto the pigskin, the offense started to hum. Cook eventually carved a 10-1 record as starter; he proved deadly accurate when converting third downs. Junior Jeremy Langford Emerged as the post-Le’veon Bell running back and became the first Spartan back since Lorenzo White to notch seven straight games of more than 100 rushing yards. Credit the offensive line led by sophomore center Jack Allen and senior guard Blake Treadwell. They helped enable Langford’s explosive, game-icing runs against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern.

The Spartans began their Big Ten win streak after a 17-13 setback in South Bend, where five controversial pass interference calls against MSU keyed Notre Dame’s touchdowns.

A 26-14 win at Iowa opened some eyes. Against a stout defense run by former MSU star Phil Parker, in an unfriendly venue, Cook showed signs of explosiveness Throwing 46 yards to sophomore MacGarrett Kings Jr. And 37 yards to senior Bennie Fowler for TDs. On defense, the Spartans throttled a rushing attack that had averaged 244.4 yards to just 23 yards on 16 attempts. Running back Mark Weisman, then the most prolific running back in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, was held to 9 rushing yards on 7 carries. Sadler, a doctoral student, added to his publicity in Seventeen Magazine by outrushing the entire Hawkeye team, gaining 25 yards on a fake punt.

Next came Indiana for a historic Homecoming milestone—the 500th game in Spartan Stadium. MSU held the Hoosiers, then the Big Ten’s top offense with 539 yards a game, to 188 yards below their average. Langford enjoyed a breakout game with four touchdowns, three of them from rushing.

MSU shut out Purdue 14-0, with junior wide receiver Tony Lippett catching five passes for 49 yards and throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to junior tight End Andrew Gleichert. A fifth defensive TD took place when Max Bullough forced a fumble that fellow senior backer Allen scooped up for 45 yards. In the second half, MSU held Purdue to 5 yards on 10 rushes.

At Champaign, IL, MSU won 42-3 over a team that had averaged over 35 points. MSU’s first touchdown came after a turnover forced by Calhoun and junior defensive end Marcus Rush. The second touchdown followed a goal-line stand, after which Cook led MSU on a methodical, 15- play, 99-yard drive that consumed over eight minutes. Fowler caught the TD pass after the pigskin caromed off a defender’s hands— the kind of break that eluded the Spartans last season.

Next came Michigan, fresh from two weeks rest. But MSU was up to the task and won the toughness battle along with the score. It was a decisive win over a team replete with nationally touted recruits. MSU’s defense hounded the Wolverine quarterback while the offensive line pounded like engine pistons. The Paul Bunyan trophy returned to East Lansing, its home four of the last five years.

Another Dantonio trait is to not rest on laurels. “If you Believe you’re not good enough, you won’t be,” he explains. “If you believe you’re too good, you’ll stop working. Somewhere between these, we need to find our identity.”

MSU then went to Lincoln, NE, and beat the Cornhuskers for the first time in eight tries. That completed a circle for Dantonio, as he has now beaten every Big Ten team at its home field. MSU’s offense converted five turnovers into 24 points and succeeded in 11 of 21 third down plays against the famed “Black Shirts.” A beautiful TD pass to junior receiver Keith Mumphery and a late TD run by Langford sealed the win.

By beating Northwestern, MSU avenged its five conference losses from last season. On a cold, blustery day in Evanston, MS U dominated the second half and won 30-6. The defense held its fourth Big Ten rival in five games without a touchdown.

A 14-3 home win against resurgent Minnesota made history. For the first time ever MSU went 8-0 in Big Ten play. The senior class led by Allen, Max Bullough, Dennard, Denzel Drone, Kyler Elsworth, Tyler Hoover, Lewis and Micajah Reynolds on defense and by Fou Fonoti, Dan France, Andrew Maxwell, Treadwell and Fowler on offense, emerged as the winningest class in MSU history, with at least three more wins than the 37 achieved by Kirk Cousins’ class.

Helping Dantonio are defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, co-offensive coordinators Jim Bollman and Dave Warner, and assistants Harlon Barnett, Ron Burton, Brad Salem, Terrence Samuel, Mark Staten and Mike Tressel.

“We have been resilient and we have come to play every week,” Notes Dantonio, who now sports a 62-29 record, 18-5 in November. “That is what I’m most proud of.” For the fourth time since 2008, MSU played in the Big Ten championship game.

For the third time in four years, MSU has at least 11 wins. Yes, you can call it the new normal.

MSU's dominant 29-6 win over archrival Michigan changed the national narrative, as media began to give due credit to the Spartan Dawgs for their resilient effort and consistency.

ANOTHER BIG TEN TITLE—The MSU women’s cross country team won its third Big Ten Championship title in four years. Led by runner-up Leah O’Connor (right end, front row), the Spartans picked up 43 points to beat out defending champion Michigan in November—a day after the football team beat The Wolverines 29-6. “Our strategy really was to run a team race, not to take any individual chances,” says Director of Cross Country/ Track & Field Walt Drenth (top left , next to volunteer assistant Aaron Simoneau), the Big Ten’s Women’s Coach of the Year for the third time in four years. “They did a really nice job of that.” The top ranked Big Ten team in the nation, at sixth overall in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll, the women had three top-10 finishers—O’Connor (2nd), Katie Landwehr (5th) and Lindsey Clark (9th). Rachele Schulist (12th) and Megan Rodgers (15th) round out the MSU contingent. Drendth credited the women’s success to Assistant Coach Lisa Senakiewich (back row, 2nd from right, next to graduate assistant Rebekah Anastos Smeltzer on the end).

TOURNAMENT TITLE FOR FIELD HOCKEY—Nov. 10: The MSU field hockey team (12-9, 4-2 Big Ten) won the Big Ten Tournament, beating Iowa 3-2 and earning the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. It was MSU’s first Big Ten Title since 2009. Senior Adelle Lever scored the game winner while junior Abby Barker scored two goals, earning her the tournament MVP. Barker and goalkeeper Molly Cassidy both made the All-Tournament team. Other stars for MSU include junior Becky Stiles, and seniors Kristen Henn and Katherine Jamieson. Third-year head coach Helen Knull, who previously served five years as an assistant under former coach Rolf van de Kerkhof, grew up in Scotland and was an All American at Kent State.

VOLLEYBALL SURGE—In early October, Lauren Wicinski, senior outside hitter from Geneva, IL, was twice named the Big Ten Volleyball Player of the Week as MSU vaulted into the Top Ten after wins over No. 1 Penn State and No. 13 Ohio State. The Spartans followed that up by beating Illinois and Northwestern and rising to No. 5 in the country at 17-1 in mid-October. MSU’s best start since 1996 included a 15-game winning streak, after which MSU was the lone undefeated team in Big Ten play. Wicinski recently surpassed the 2,000 career kills mark and also surpassed 1,000 career digs. “This is a wonderful recognition for Lauren,” says Head Coach Cathy George. “She is a fierce competitor and a catalyst for our team. Her success is a big part of our team success.”

NEW LIGHTS AT MUNN—New lights in MSU’s Munn Ice Arena will look better and save on energy. Munn is the first U.S. ice rink equipped with LED lights, which use about one-fifth the current energy. “Fans will notice an amazing difference in light quality,” says Greg Ianni, deputy director of MSU Athletics. “And goalies say they can see the puck a lot better.” The new lights cost about $575,000 and are part of a major renovation project that also upgrades the arena’s ice making process, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

NEW LIGHTS AT MUNN—New lights in MSU’s Munn Ice Arena will look better and save on energy. Munn is the first U.S. ice rink equipped with LED lights, which use about one-fifth the current energy. “Fans will notice an amazing difference in light quality,” says Greg Ianni, deputy director of MSU Athletics. “And goalies say they can see the puck a lot better.” The new lights cost about $575,000 and are part of a major renovation project that also upgrades the arena’s ice making process, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.