Michigan State entered the season amid high expectations after its wins total climbed in each of Mark Dantonio's two seasons as head coach. But the program has struggled to turn the corner this fall, battling inconsistent play and dropping five games by eight points or fewer (23 total points). The Spartans sit at 5-5 heading into Saturday's huge showdown at Purdue (ESPN, noon ET) and need at least one more win just to be bowl eligible. Some already call the season a disappointment, but there are obvious reasons for optimism, from sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins to defensive lineman Jerel Worthy to an exciting group of young running backs. Dantonio still believes the team can take an important step this month.
The third-year coach stopped by to talk about the season, the Purdue game and the outlook for the future.
Does this position remind you a little bit of 2007, needing a win to get bowl eligible with two to play?
Mark Dantonio: It does for us. We're a 5-5 football team, much like we were in '07. We'd lost some close games and we had an opportunity to get [win] No. 6 and build something from there. It happened to be at Purdue, so you're certainly going to remember those things, but we've got to go play. Purdue's in a very, very similar situation.
You talked a lot before the season about handling expectations at Michigan State and how it has been tough for this program to do so in the past. How has the team dealt with those expectations?
MD: We've handled it. I'm sure that we would want to have a little bit more success than we have right now, but when I ask myself, 'Did we handle the expectations?'' I know we've continued to play hard. We've continued to compete and focus and have great practices throughout every week. That's the thing that I look at. You have to look at attitude, too, and our attitude has not wavered one bit. We still have an opportunity to have a good football season, so you have to weigh in on that at the end of the season, where we end up. But as of right now, we've handled it emotionally.
A lot of fans expect Big Ten titles every season, which obviously won't happen this year. Are you still confident that things are still headed toward that place where you guys can contend every year?
MD: Absolutely. We're a young football team, and we're a few plays away from being 9-1. So when you look at that, we've played competitively against everybody. That's what you have to look at. The error between winning and losing is so small and the parity is so great, you're trying to get on the same level playing field and we are to that point. At positions like tailback and quarterback, we're young. Those positions that are the media-hyped positions, tailback, quarterback, we're freshman- and sophomore-dominated.
I know it's the million-dollar question in this sport, but how do you get over the hump in close games? Is there a quality that needs to come out, or is it just having more experience?
MD: What you look for is consistency. You're looking for that confidence factor because I believe once you get to that point and you win the close games, you keep winning them. It takes time to be in those situations, much like we talked about last year as a football team. We had opportunities to be on the big stage against Ohio State and at Penn State. We hadn't been there before, our players hadn't been on that stage before and we didn't play very well. I think this comes with the territory. These are growing pains as you build your program. We're in Year 3, we're a young football team, so we take our lumps a little bit in that case. You can point to something different every game. It's not one particular thing that has happened. You win and lose as a football team, but we can get over the hump.
You mentioned having young players at marquee positions. How do you evaluate Kirk Cousins' play to this point at quarterback?
MD: He's done an outstanding job for us. He's been very efficient as a passer. The thing that we look at, which is just as important, is the game-management aspect of the football team: going into the huddle, getting in the right play, making a decision at the line of scrimmage, going to the right read. He's a sophomore, so he's continuing to get better. He's got those game-experience reps, and that's what's important. We're trying to grow within a total position unit, too, but he's done an excellent job.