Spartans win in Mark Dantonio's return
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Mark Dantonio of Michigan State is about as colorful as the brown suit he wore Saturday, as riveting as a Rotary Club luncheon. Dantonio may be the closest match of coach and nickname in the game today. I haven't checked the Italian-English dictionary, but I'd bet even money that Dantonio is Italian for Spartan.
But not even Dantonio can drain the drama out of what happened at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. Dantonio, in his first appearance with his team since he suffered a heart attack three weeks ago, watched from the press box as his No. 17 Michigan State team took apart No. 18 Michigan, 34-17.
Well, he watched most of it. When safety Trenton Robinson intercepted Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in the end zone to stunt the Wolverines' opening drive, Dantonio heard it from a police car. He had stayed on the field for the coin toss before retreating per doctor's orders. The tunnel leading from the playing surface at the Big House is on the opposite side of the country's biggest stadium (113,065 filled it Saturday). Dantonio hitched a ride.
"I was driving around in the car, didn't even see it," Dantonio said. "But credit the Spartan fans. I heard it."
The coach in him enjoyed being in the press box, where he spent his Saturdays before he became a head coach at Cincinnati in 2003. "You can see a lot up there," Dantonio said. The coach in him remarked earlier this week that he has watched more video in the quiet of his home than he ever would be able to as the CEO of the football team, bouncing from one meeting to another.
But the leader in him knew where he needed to be, smack in the middle of his team. Dantonio wanted to be there, too.
"That to me kept normalcy," Dantonio said of his pregame presence. "I wanted them to know I was OK. I wanted to do things like we normally do it. I wanted to stay down there for the [coin] flip. I wanted to experience that, too. I wanted to experience this football game close up. I did go down at halftime. I tried to keep as much normalcy as we could have without me being on the sideline."
His players felt Dantonio's presence. They relished seeing him among them during pregame warm-ups. In the days following the heart attack, which Dantonio suffered the night the Spartans stunned Notre Dame, winning 34-31 by scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal attempt in overtime, no one had any answers.
"It was kind of a day-to-day thing there for a while," guard Joel Foreman said. "We didn't know how long it was going to take. We didn't know if it would be weeks, months, days. But it was something that we had to persevere through. It brought us closer. Coach D, not having them there, was hard."
During the warm-ups, Dantonio walked slowly, with what appeared to be a hitch in his right leg. But you could see the delight in his face. At one point, as the offense huddled before running a play, Dantonio walked up and joined it, placing his left arm around the shoulders of tight end Charlie Gantt.
"Just for him to be back, to see the look on his face just walking around, I could tell he kind of missed us, and we missed him," senior linebacker Greg Jones said. "I feel like he's been smiling a little bit more. I feel like he's been soaking it in a little bit more than usual. At the dinner table before pregame meal, he was smiling a little bit more than he does."
Which is never, right?
"Which is different," Jones said, smiling. "And it makes everything easier on us, especially the captains. We sit at the table with him. If he smiles, we can ease up a little bit, too, though."
Not that Dantonio is getting soft. I would say that the Spartans won in methodical fashion, but it would be redundant. Dantonio, in four seasons, has crafted a team in his image. They say the right things. They play the right way. If Saturday is any indication, any team that wants to beat Michigan State will have to do the heavy lifting itself. The Spartans aren't in the business of beating themselves. No. 18 Michigan, a wildly talented, wildly inconsistent team, has yet to learn that lesson.
Michigan State did not commit a turnover. The Spartans intercepted Robinson three times, twice in the red zone. They prevented the Michigan quarterback, who played the first five games of the season as if he had patented the big play, from hurting them with any Saturday. It says something about Robinson that he had 301 total yards (86 rushing, 215 passing) and Michigan State can crow about stopping him.
But it says more about the Spartans that they did it. Michigan State is 6-0 for the first time since 1999, Nick Saban's last team. Saban left East Lansing after that 10-2 season for LSU, where he didn't have to share a state with a traditional power. Dantonio is fine with sharing the state. The Spartans have beaten Michigan three consecutive years for the first time since the glory years of the mid-1960s.
Michigan State will need some help to win the Big Ten's Rose Bowl berth. The Spartans don't play No. 2 Ohio State. The tiebreaker in such cases is the BCS ratings.
Assuming that the Spartans defeat Illinois next Saturday, they would be undefeated as they move into consecutive road games against Northwestern (6-0) and No. 15 Iowa (4-1). It's easy to see a scenario in which Michigan State and Iowa play for the inside track to a BCS at-large bid.
Speculation is the coin of the BCS realm. Dantonio would rather start telling jokes than engage in it. Someone asked him if, given the fact that Michigan State has defeated ranked teams on consecutive Saturdays without him on the sideline, he would consider staying away.
"I don't believe in superstitions," Dantonio said. "I believe in God."
He is as solid as they come, a guy who screams old-school values. This season, he has a heartwarming story to tell. It's not often that you can get Dantonio and heartwarming in the same sentence. At the halfway point, in so many ways, it's looking like a special season at Michigan State.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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