Scrappy Spartans starting to reflect Dantonio

September, 20, 2008
9/20/08
10:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

 
 AP Photo
 Michigan State's Javon Ringer (23) rushes for a 7-yard gain during the second quarter of the Spartans' 23-7 win over Notre Dame Saturday.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- To put it bluntly, Saturday's game was boring, a 60-minute grind defined by durable defense, field position and trench combat. Sure, it had intensity, but no flash, no pizzazz.

Mark Dantonio loved every minute of it. He didn't see a dull game. He saw tremendous intensity, solid fundamentals, power vs. power. He saw the way he wants Michigan State to play.

He saw himself.

As Dantonio often points out, Michigan State is still in the foundation phase after seven mostly underachieving seasons under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. But teams usually turn a corner when they start to reflect their head coach, and if Saturday's 23-7 win against Notre Dame is any indication, Michigan State seems to be getting there.

"When you come out and play with emotion, play physical, that's because coach Dantonio's the one getting us fired up," middle linebacker Adam Decker said. "Him and his staff are the ones preaching being physical all week and all camp and all offseason. It's ingrained into us, and when we come out on a big stage like this, it's what we go back to."

Dantonio came to Michigan State known for his dominant defenses. His top credential was a three-year stint as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, where he coached a star-studded unit that ranked second nationally in points allowed and third in rushing defense en route to winning a national championship in 2002.

Michigan State had a mini-breakthrough in Dantonio's first year last fall, going 7-6 and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003. But the defense ranked eighth in the league in points allowed, surrendering 30 points or more five times. The unit didn't fully reflect its architect.

On Saturday, the Spartans throttled Notre Dame's offense, allowing only 16 net rushing yards and recording three sacks. The rare Irish ballcarrier who made it past the line of scrimmage paid the price, like the time safety Otis Wiley ear-holed James Aldridge late in the first quarter.

"We have an award called the Jacked-Up Hit award," Dantonio said. "It's a great award. You should see it sometime."

It's actually a T-shirt given out to the most ferocious hitter in each game. Wiley expects to be wearing it this week. "I'll wear it around, proud," Wiley said.

It took some time, but Wiley is blossoming into a Dantonio prototype. After leading the team in both tackles (94) and pass breakups (10) in 2006, Wiley struggled in Dantonio's first season.

He has rebounded this fall and sparked Michigan State with two first-half interceptions Saturday, bringing his season total to a Big Ten-leading four.

"Last year was just knowing what to do," Wiley said. "Now we know what to do. We know the plays to run and call. Coach D reflects us." Or the other way around. "I don't care where you're coaching, what brand of football you're coaching, you want to see good fundamentals, you want to see guys hustle and playing hard," Dantonio said. "Whether you're in the spread or the I-backs or passing it, you just want guys to play hard, and our guys did that."

Michigan State's style has been molded during hyper-intense practices where full-go hitting isn't merely allowed, but encouraged. The practices can be somewhat overwhelming for newcomers, as quarterback Keith Nichol, an Oklahoma transfer, found out.

"He's holding his head because he's watching guys flying around, killing people in practice," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said of Nichol. "And he's like, 'Oh my God.' He's scared somebody's going to get hurt, but that's how we play."

The physical style isn't only reserved for the defense. Michigan State's offensive philosophy is simple: beat up the opposing defense until it can't take it anymore.

While other Big Ten teams get cute with the spread offense, the Spartans practically announce they're going to feed running back Javon Ringer the ball over and over. Notre Dame was prepared, filling the box with seven or eight defenders, but Ringer still ran for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

"I feel stacking the box is a compliment," right tackle Jesse Miller said. "That means they respect our run game. And we keep going through 'em anyway. What can they do after that?"

Dantonio won his first four games as Spartans coach before seeing the team drop five of its next six. Michigan State won its third straight game Saturday and could continue the push in Big Ten play, which opens with Indiana, followed by Northwestern and Iowa.

The way the Spartans are winning suggests they'll avoid another slide, but Dantonio takes nothing for granted.

"Do I look comfortable?" he asked. "You're always on edge. It's always tense. It's always stressful. "We're building. This is a foundation, but we're not there yet."

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