Seven years ago Michigan State was the laughingstock of the Big Ten. We had just finished 1-7 in the Big Ten, Spartan Stadium was empty by the third quarter, and coach John L. Smith was open about the struggle to motivate his players. Other than future NFL reserve Drew Stanton, whose tenure at MSU embodied the phrase “A day late and a dollar short,” the program was an utter disappointment from top to bottom.
Smith was fired after that season opening the door for a relatively unknown coach from Cincinnati. What came next was a thorough cleansing of a losing culture, an overhaul of standards and expectations within the program, and a restored pride amongst players and fans.
Today, Mark Dantonio has redefined what it means to be a Spartan.
In the seven seasons since taking over the helm, Dantonio has strung together 63 wins, a 5-2 record against rival Michigan, two trips to the B10 Championship game, and yearly postseason bids. In 2010, the team peaked at 5th in the nation before finishing 14th with an 11-2 record. The following year the Spartans made the first ever B10 Championship, and went on to beat a highly-touted Georgia team in the Outback bowl.
In 2012, the Spartans regressed back to being the “same old Spartans.” We lost six games by a combined 13 points including a heart breaking loss to U of M on a last second field goal. Some people thought the honeymoon was over. When 2013 started the offense was in shambles. We had no clue who our starting quarterback was and the running game was in the hand of two positional transfers. We were crashing back to our past ways, and our reign in the state seemed to be coming to a close. After a loss to Notre Dame highlighted by a turnover on an untimely trick play and a failed last second drive by a hopelessly overmatched Andrew Maxwell who had been on the bench all game fans questioned if Dantonio still deserved the job. Everybody doubted the team. Everybody except those in the locker room.
Dantonio had shown us once before that he could take a tainted program and turn it around. And much like the first time, he wouldn’t disappoint.
Remember in 8 mile when Eminem’s character B-rabbit choked during his first rap battle. He didn’t even say a single word before handing over the mic, defeated. That was the Spartans after the Notre Dame game. But just like B-rabbit, the Spartans kept working, kept improving. Dantonio announced Connor Cook would be the starting quarterback, ending the weekly carousel of uncertainty. With more continuity the team was able to improve their offense while quietly rallying behind the nation’s top defense. They became our identity. A unit so good that eventually six teams failed to score double digits against them including a 12-quarter stretch where they allowed zero touchdowns. The Spartans then sat in the shadows, gaining little nationwide respect despite throttling opposing offenses. They were in the “other’s receiving votes” portion of the rankings the first nine times they were released. But like B-rabbit, rapping to himself and slowly filling notebooks with cyphers, the Spartans stood staring in the mirror waiting for their chance.
That moment finally came when Michigan came to town, the same week MSU cracked the Top 25 for the first time. They held nothing back and took no prisoners. That’s when Spartan fans started to accept how good this team really was.
Disposing of Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota, each by double digits, was the follow up act. Easily manhandling each of those opponents proved Michigan State and Ohio State were without a doubt the two best teams in the conference. When it was finalized that the two would face each other in the championship game, both sides were ready.
The Big Ten Championship was the like the final battle. B-Rabbit faced reigning champ Papa Doc. The Spartans faced #2 OSU, a team that hadn’t lost in two years. Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes were so close to a National Championship they could taste it. The Spartans didn’t care, they could smell the roses. Michigan State jumped out to a dominating 17-0 lead, clearly looking like the team that wanted it more. But as quickly as we had taken the lead Braxton Miller took it back. His scrambles had our defense looking like something they hadn’t looked like all season: mortal. But despite this one-man comeback that gave OSU the lead entering the 4th quarter, Michigan State refused to be stopped. They put on the clamps for the last 15 minutes, allowing only 24 total yards in the final quarter while regaining the lead. With two minutes left, Jeremy Langford galloped into the endzone giving us a 10-point lead and effectively driving the nail in OSU’s coffin.
It has been nothing but roses since. We are finally gaining national attention for our suffocating defense, offensive poise, and genius coaching staff. After sitting outside the rankings for the majority of the year, this undeniable victory allowed us to leapfrog to #4 in the BCS rankings.
An offense that started the year struggling to score against the doldrums of Division 1 is now the proud home of a never-rattled quarterback and a back-breaking running game. Sophomore Connor Cook, who didn’t stop sharing first team reps until week 5, now sports an unwavering confidence, a 20-5 TD/INT ratio and a Big Ten Championship MVP. Former WR turned running back Jeremy Langford is coming off his 8th consecutive 100-yard rushing game (school-record) and has 17 touchdowns on the year.
The Spartans are now on their way to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years. The first one in my and most of my friend’s lifetimes. It’s crazy to think that two months ago people questioned whether MSU would make a bowl at all. Just goes to show you to never doubt the man in charge, Mark Dantonio. This isn’t the same program he took over seven years ago. Something has changed. He’s built a winning reputation and instilled a higher set of standards than his predecessors ever did. Unlike other top programs, Dantonio doesn’t bring in highly regarded recruiting classes. Instead he finds diamonds in the rough and turns quiet recruits into studs (LeVeon Bell, Kirk Cousins, Keshaun Martin, Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen to name a few). He gets these kids to buy into a blue collar mentality, to work together and harder than their opponents. He’s made East Lansing home to the pride of the Big Ten.
The turnaround this team made has been absolutely jaw-dropping. A team that started with more questions than answers is one win away from FINISHING in the top 3. It just goes to show you how great of a coach Mark Dantonio and the rest of his staff are and how hard this team worked. This Rose Bowl bid wasn’t handed to them, they earned it. The Spartans won’t sneak up on Stanford like they did some other opponents this year but they still have a legitimate chance of winning the game. It’s time for Dantonio to really bring home some hardware.
Tell me what you think is going to happen @chris_barbee19.
 Should have been 0-8 if not for a historic 35-point comeback against Northwestern.
 It still makes my blood boil when I think about the fact that U of M was given a BCS at-large bid over us even though WE made the championship game AND beat them that year. Michigan State and Georgia were both better than each of the teams selected to the Sugar Bowl that year.
 These are quotes from a blog article I wrote at the beginning of the season. “Overall, each play on offense has the feeling of “snap the ball, EVERYBODY PANIC!!, gain at most 3 yards, get tackled”. I did have confidence in the defense though, “If we could just keep our defense on the field the entire game we might score more points.” Yikes.
 That part was just unheard of to me. A team from a BCS conference continues winning handedly and receiving votes every week but couldn’t turn enough heads to crack the top 25 until nine weeks in!! It was insane how long we sat in the 25-30 range.