Program keeps distancing itself from U-M
Stephen Brooks is a State News football reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the minutes separating the end of Saturday’s game and the start of the press conference, it was interesting to speculate what MSU coaches and players would say when they took the podium.
They had just physically overpowered rival Michigan in a 29-6 slugfest, holding the Wolverines to a school record -48 rushing yards in the most lopsided Spartan win since 1967.
Would they boast about bullying their most hated opponent up and down the field? Or pour gas on old rivalry embers with vitriolic comments?
Would they shy away from addressing the Wolverines and distribute the praise to teammates instead?
Having won five of the last six meetings in the rivalry, would head coach Mark Dantonio deliver another endearing quote to the Spartan fan base?
Not at all, actually.
For much of MSU’s recent history, this win would have been accompanied with Super Bowl-esque grandstanding. Beating the team from Ann Arbor seemingly validated the season as a success — anything else was just a bonus.
That mindset and culture was nowhere to be found on Saturday. The Spartans were undeniably excited, but the U-M jabs were kept to a minimum. The mood was celebratory, but also centered and mature.
MSU knew it had just exhibited dominance on the field. The players knew it was the most important game on the schedule. They also knew there’s more to play for these days than beating the Wolverines. It was a good win, potentially a great win. But the Spartans don’t plan on letting that win define their season anymore.
Nobody illustrated that point better than senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard. He helped orchestrate a Gatorade shower for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi — an honor typically reserved for a head coach after a momentous win.
“We’re saving the one for coach D,” Dennard said.
“Somewhere in Cali,” he said with a grin, referencing the Rose Bowl.
Senior linebacker Max Bullough had no interest in basking in his 3-1 career record against U-M, either. With his unique position as a captain, three-year starter and third-generation Spartan, few have Bullough’s perspective on the importance of the rivalry.
“This will last the rest of my life, but we have a few more games left — and the Rose Bowl, that’s gonna last the rest of my life,” Bullough said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to. The work’s not done.”
Dantonio joked about daylight savings adding to the traditional 24-hour rule regarding the appropriate time to celebrate a win. He’s typically as open as anybody in the program regarding his dislike for U-M. Dantonio reinvented this rivalry by making the Spartans respectable.
He’s expanded the expectations from simply competing, to winning to now competing for championships, distancing his program from U-M with each step.
“I can just tell you that we do what we do,” he said. “There are guys that they have on their football team that we haven’t offered.…There are guys on our football team that they’ve never offered, so it’s what you do with the players that come and what they’re belief system is. Our guys are believing.”
Dantonio preached to his players about “keeping the lion in the cage,” until 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and not peaking too early. The lion feasted and, if the postgame vibe was any indication, it’ll be even hungrier next time it’s released.