EAST LANSING - Week 12's first day of work offered Mark Dantonio a chance to reflect as he began preparation for a bone fide championship game week for Michigan State football, Sunday night.
During his weekly media briefing, Dantonio was asked about the level of gratification he has, with a chance to win a Big Ten title on the final week of the season, for the second time in three years.
"Yes it is (gratifying)," Dantonio said.
Then, Dantonio thought back to one of his strongest statements, shortly after he was hired, in December of 2006.
"When we came here in '07, as a staff, we wanted to compete for championships," Dantonio said. "I remember my first Dream Team Banquet and I remember what was said previous to my standing up there and I remember what was said and if you check the records I said that we would measure up. That's all that I said, that we would measure up. And we're at least doing that."
Dantonio didn't say those words meekly, that night at the Dream Team Banquet at Ford Field in Detroit, an event which annually honors the state's best high school football players. He was terse, direct and obtuse in promising University of Michigan assistant coaches Steve Stripling and Ron English at a nearby table that the Spartans would measure up. (SpartanMag.com file video: Dantonio at Dream Team Banquet, '06.)
(Spartan Mag.com story on the banquet, 12/15/06.)
Something had happened earlier in the night that ticked off Dantonio and his assistants. Dantonio wouldn't elaborate then or now.
Ironically, four years later, Michigan State needs middling Michigan to win this weekend, against Ohio State, in order to give the Spartans a chance to earn a Rose Bowl bid by beating Penn State.
The Spartans have measured up and beyond the Wolverines, who were the target of Dantonio's address at the Dream Team Banquet, and have since changes staffs. Now the Spartans are hoping to earn a share of the Big Ten title, with Wisconsin and Ohio State also in contention. A Spartan victory and Buckeye loss on Saturday would send Michigan State to Pasadena.
It's the second time in three years that the Spartans have had a shot at the roses heading into the season's final weekend.
"We are competing for championships," Dantonio continued, Sunday night. "We are competing at a level that puts us with the elite teams in this conference, this year. It changes every year because it is extremely competitive. But we have done it two of the last three years and we have gotten to four straight bowl games. We are doing things that are building a strong foundation and taking steps up the ladder. And I think that that's the key to success.
"I don't think you can jumpstart and get all the way up. I think you have to build a foundation and keep taking small steps up the ladder. And when we played over at Penn State two years ago, it was their first time in that experience, playing for a Big Ten championship, and we didn't play very well. So we have some guys on this football team that have played there, done that, and that experience should be very valuable this Saturday."
'We Can't Let That Happen Again'
In '08, No. 7 Penn State throttled No. 17 Michigan State 49-18, denying the Spartans a share of the Big Ten title. Penn State earned a trip to the Rose Bowl with that win. Michigan State went to the Capital One Bowl.
"It's something we've talked about a lot, really, since coming here," Dantonio said of the opportunity to win a Big Ten title on the season's last day. "This is very similar to the situation in '08 when we had an opportunity to go to Penn State and play for a championship."
Penn State dominated the '08 game from the beginning, jumping out to a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. Penn State rolled up 557 yards of offense, while holding Michigan State's Javon Ringer to 42 yards on 17 carries.
Ringer is gone, but several Spartan regulars who were on the field that day in Happy Valley will play this weekend, hoping to regain some respect, as well as Michigan State's first share of the Big Ten title since 1990.
The Spartans seemed stunned by the physicality and athleticism of the Lions in 2008, as well as the atmosphere generated by the 109,845 fans in attendance for PSU's Senior Day. Penn State also seemed much more comfortable with the magnitude of the event.
"We pipe noise in there and that type of thing, but you really cannot prepare yourself other than you can reflect back on '08," Dantonio said, when asked what the Spartans can do to try to prepare for the vibe at Beaver Stadium. "You can reflect back on the Iowa game, because that was an experience there, and we didn't play well enough. Hopefully we draw experience from being in those situations. The more you're in them, the better you are going to play. I think we'll rise to the occasion."
In the '08 game, Mark Dell[/B] had four catches for 50 yards, [db]B.J. Cunningham had five catches for 43 yards and Charlie Gantt had three catches for 27 yards.
Greg Jones had 15 tackles, including 3.5 for losses. Eric Gordon, Chris L. Rucker, Marcus Hyde and Johnny Adams saw extensive action on defense. They will all start on Saturday.
"We can't let that happen again," Rucker said in reference to the '08 blowout. "Big game. This is what it all boils down to, this is what we've been playing for. We just have to go in there and play our best game and just do what we need to do to win the game. We have to focus on the task at hand and play for each other.
"With a program like that, a place like Penn State, there is going to be an atmosphere there. I feel like this year we have to go in with a mindset that we are not going to let the crowd get to us, and we are there for each other and we are playing for each other and I think we will go in with that attitude."
That sounds good to Dantonio.
"We have to come ready to play, and ready mentally," Dantonio said. "But we have to win the physical battle. That will be a challenge for us.
"I continue to tell our players it's a moment in time, so enjoy the moment and embrace it. We're going to have fun. I have tremendous respect for our football team and our leaders on our football team and players making plays, but our coaches are going to enjoy it as well, but we're going to compete."
Dantonio told his players the same thing two years ago, to enjoy the moment. In doing so, Dantonio this time is making doubly sure to
"I think it's very important that we stay hungry and understand what it takes, and understand that we still have to play for respect, and all the different things," Dantonio said. "Just get ourselves ready to go."
This year's Penn State team, at 7-4, isn't nearly as good as the Rose Bowl team of '08. But Michigan State is preparing as if the Nittany Lions will be every bit as good.
"Penn State is a good football team that is getting better," Dantonio said. "They have gotten better throughout the year because they were playing young players. They are getting good play from their quarterback. They have got another running back besides Evan Royster that is making plays."
As of Sunday evening, Dantonio had yet to begin his film breakdown of Penn State, other than Nittany Lion footage he saw while preparing for other opponents. Dantonio will relay more extensive thoughts on Saturday's matchup during his weekly Tuesday press conference.
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