Michigan State's Mark Dantonio turns in his best coaching job yet

Mark Dantonio's even-keeled approach is just what Michigan State needed during this injury-plagued regular season. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Mark Dantonio has led Michigan State to its third Big Ten championship game in five years. His Spartans have now won 11 games in five of the past six seasons. Dantonio's record over his past 40 games is 36-4.

In other words, there's no question that he is one of the best coaches in America, and Dantonio continues to turn in stellar work year after year in East Lansing. None of that is really news. Here's what might be surprising: This year might well have been Dantonio's best coaching job yet.

That's really saying something, as the numbers above indicate. He was the Big Ten coach of the year in 2013, when Michigan State went 13-1 and won the Rose Bowl despite modest preseason expectations. This year's Spartans were predicted to be a College Football Playoff contender.

But this season has provided constant challenges that Dantonio has met. Let's review some of them:

  • Ed Davis, the team's best linebacker, suffered a season-ending knee injury. That would be the beginning of a nearly unprecedented string of injury misfortune by a Dantonio team.

  • Vayante Copeland, arguably the team's top cornerback despite being a redshirt freshman, suffered a neck injury in Week 2 vs. Oregon and was lost for the year.

  • The offensive line, considered one of the Spartans' main strengths to begin the year, dealt with a rash of injuries. All-America candidates Jack Conklin and Jack Allen missed extended time, and Conklin's replacement, Dennis Finley, broke his leg. The situation became so dire that Allen, a center, had to move out to left tackle for a while. Only in the past couple of weeks has Michigan State's offensive line rounded into health and its expected rotation.

  • LJ Scott and Madre London, who were the top two running backs earlier in the season, both got hurt around the same time.

  • The secondary was so banged up midseason that Dantono had to start a pair of true freshmen -- Khari Willis and Grayson Miller -- against Michigan.

  • And, of course, star quarterback Connor Cook hurt his shoulder against Maryland and couldn't play at Ohio State. Dantonio and his staff improvised, using backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry and relying heavily on the run game to pull off a shocking 17-14 upset of the heavily-favored Buckeyes on the road.

"There was never a point when I thought it would be too much," Dantonio said of the injury bug. "But there were points where I would say, 'Hey, we've got to play every game. Every game is tight. We can't make mistakes.'"

The season easily could have come unglued with all the missed time by important players, and the Spartans had to scuffle through some games. They held off Rutgers on the road by seven points, helped when Scarlet Knights quarterback Chris Laviano spiked the ball on fourth down. They beat Purdue at home by just three points. They needed a miracle, of course, to pull out the Michigan win, and they lost in November to Nebraska.

Through some tumultuous times, Dantonio's culture of consistency proved crucial. He's a guy who rarely changes expressions in his public appearances and is as even-keeled as they come in the coaching world. That's what this team really needed through the ups and downs of the season.

"He has the steady hand that keeps us pushing forward," senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "He makes sure everybody understands that our goals are still ahead of us."

Staff stability has been a hallmark of Dantonio's tenure, but he even had to deal with a major change there this year. Pat Narduzzi, his most trusted assistant and architect of Michigan State's fierce defenses the past several years, left in the offseason to become head coach at Pitt. The Spartans' defense hasn't put up its usual stingy stats this year -- it ranks just seventh in the Big Ten in yards allowed and sixth in rush defense -- but Dantonio has found other ways for his team to get it done.

I asked Dantonio after Saturday's 55-16 win over Penn State to clinch the Big Ten East Division title whether this season was his most gratifying, given all that the team had overcome.

"That remains to be seen," he said. "It was pretty gratifying in 2013 and 2011 as well."

Dantonio won't win the Big Ten coach of the year award this year. Kirk Ferentz is a lock for that honor after taking a lightly-regarded Iowa team to a 12-0 record and a spot opposite Michigan State in Saturday's Big Ten championship game. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also lifted their teams beyond initial expectations.

Dantonio would rather chase another Big Ten title, a playoff berth and a possible national title than worry about winning awards. If he accomplishes those goals, there will be no doubt that this year was his finest coaching job yet.