MSU uses connections to Ohio as inspiration, motivation
MSU football head coach Mark Dantonio discusses the team’s preparations at his weekly press conference Tuesday.
To say Mark Dantonio is familiar with the state of Ohio would be a major understatement.
Dantonio grew up in Zanesville, Ohio, 55 miles out from Columbus.
He coached at or was a graduate assistant for five different colleges in the state, spanning 15 years.
Three of those years were spent as the defensive coordinator for the state’s premier football university, and No. 20 MSU’s upcoming opponent: No. 14 Ohio State.
In his six years at MSU, Dantonio has utilized his ties to the Buckeye State, handpicking recruits from Ohio to fill the Spartan roster.
At game time Saturday, the Spartans will have 28 Ohio natives dressed to play, with seven likely starters.
However, the pipeline to Ohio doesn’t just help Dantonio with the players on his own team.
Junior cornerback and Ohio native Johnny Adams returns an 86-yard pick-6 during the Nov. 11, 2011 game against Indiana in Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Hoosiers, 55-3. State News File Photo
Junior running back and Ohio native Le'Veon Bell runs down the field during the game against Eastern at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. The Spartans won 23-7. Julia Nagy/The State News
From left, Ohio natives then-sophomore defensive tackle William Gholston and then-sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen try to fire the crowd up. The Michigan State Spartans defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in triple overtime, 33-30, at the Outback Bowl hosted in Raymond James Stadium at Tampa, Fla. in January. Justin Wan/The State News
“Probably 70 percent of the guys that are starting on (Ohio State’s) football team are guys that we’ve recruited, guys we’ve known about through the recruiting process,” he said.
For players such as junior linebacker Denicos Allen, the game against Ohio State always is circled on the calendar.
Hailing from Hamilton, Ohio, Allen elected to accept a scholarship offer from MSU, something that was not tendered by Ohio State.
While Allen said he took it personally that his hometown school slighted him during the recruiting process, he realized that East Lansing was a better location for him. Still, he said he looks forward to putting on a show for the Buckeyes.
“It’s personal, but it’s not really that personal,” he said. “It’s more of a ‘this is why I could have played there,’ to kind of prove a point.”
Last year, Allen had a breakout game in Columbus, recording four tackles, including two and a half tackles for loss and two sacks while helping the Spartans to a 10-7 victory.
Allen said for the players from Ohio, playing the Buckeyes always intensifies the atmosphere come game time, something junior linebacker Max Bullough has noticed.
“It’s a very emotional game for us — it’s similar to Michigan because a lot of people from Ohio are on our team,” he said. “Last year was a very emotional and enthusiastic game for us, so if we can capture that and harness that, I think that’s when we’re most dangerous.”
Last year’s Ohio State game kick-started the Spartan defense; new challenge awaits in 2012
The ball was snapped and, like a racehorse, Denicos Allen began churning his feet.
Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left.
With his left foot planted firmly in the grass of Ohio Stadium, Allen leapt with arms extended and took flight, soaring over then-junior running back Jordan Hall to sack then-senior quarterback Joe Bauserman inside Ohio State’s five-yard line.
It’s a play that still draws a smile from the junior linebacker, and often is most remembered for preserving a 10-7 victory Columbus, Ohio, last year and snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Buckeyes.
The Spartans were ranked in the bottom third of the nation in sacks before the game, but a nine-sack performance against Ohio State ignited MSU’s defense and led a charge to the inaugural Big Ten championship game.
As the No. 20 MSU football team (3-1) gets ready to face No. 14 Ohio State (4-0) and new head coach Urban Meyer on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC), only Air Force and Texas State have fewer quarterback sacks than the Spartans.
And after recording his first sack last week — just as he did the week before his signature highlight in last season’s Big Ten opener against the Buckeyes — Allen said he and the Spartan defense are ready to break out.
“It was a lot of relief getting that first sack,” said Allen, who finished last season with 11 sacks.
“The coaches had addressed me and told me I wasn’t playing up to my expectations, and I knew that, so I had to step up in this game and make the plays I could make.”
Allen’s sack was a welcome sign for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who said his defense needs to be more dominant.
“We’ve been waiting for him to get turned loose,” Narduzzi said of Allen. “I’ve been begging for a sack … but that’s what Denicos is supposed to do. Hopefully, that was warmup for Big Ten conference. He is a great player and needs to make good plays all the time, not just part time.”
Yet piling up the sacks will be more difficult this season, as OSU sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller already has rushed for more than 500 yards and seven touchdowns.
Despite the Spartan defense allowing 8.2 points per game — third in the nation — as well as ranking sixth in the country in total defense, head coach Mark Dantonio said he still believes there’s room for his defense to improve.
“I think that we have very high standards on defense here,” Dantonio said. “I also think that we’re playing very, very well, but with that, we can continue to play better.
“We’re going to be judged every single game. We have a big challenge this weekend with the skill that Ohio State has, the formations, the different things they do, the schematics, the no-huddle offense. … It will be a great challenge for us.”
The seven starters from Ohio
Le’Veon Bell, junior running back, Groveport Madison High School/Columbus, Ohio
Bell is MSU’s go-to player on offense and is ranked third in the nation in rushing, averaging 152.5 yards per game.
Johnny Adams, senior cornerback, Buchtel High School/Akron, Ohio
Adams leads the Spartans with four pass breakups in 2012 and recorded his first interception of the season against Central Michigan in week two.
Marcus Rush, sophomore defensive end, Archbishop Moeller High School/Cincinnati, Ohio
Rush has started in each game this season, recording 12 tackles so far, including three tackles for loss.
Denicos Allen, junior linebacker, Hamilton High School/Hamilton, Ohio
Allen is coming off a six-tackle, one-sack game against Eastern Michigan and has 17 tackles so far on the season.
Dan France, junior offensive tackle, North Royalton High School/North Royalton, Ohio
France is a converted defensive end who started 13 games on the offensive line last year and has started at left tackle in all four games this season.
Travis Jackson, sophomore center, St. Francis DeSales High School/New Albany, Ohio
Jackson is in his second year as MSU’s starting center and has started the first four games of the season.
Skyler Burkland, sophomore offensive tackle, Big Walnut High School/Sunbury, Ohio
Burkland missed the first game of the season with a hand injury, but returned for week two against Central Michigan and is listed as the starter for Saturday’s game in the absence of the injured Fou Fonoti.