Spartans’ Dantonio relishes big moments

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio says great things are possible for the Spartans on Saturday.

Robert Hanashiro/Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Like Tom Izzo, like Mark Dantonio.

Since Izzo was named head coach of the Michigan State basketball team in 1995, he’s consistently pushed for his teams to play the most difficult non-conference schedules possible.

Now, the football team is following suit.

The Spartans, who leap-frogged Ohio State and UCLA to No. 7 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, will travel to Eugene to face No. 3 Oregon Saturday.

While most of the weekend’s spotlight will likely be focused on the top-10 matchup, especially with ESPN’s College GameDay in town, it’s nothing the defending Rose Bowl Champions aren’t used to.

"I think we embrace those situations," Dantonio said at Tuesday’s weekly press conference. "We’ve played in big games before, so that’s not new to us. his has been a progression for us I think.

"If you look at our football program right now from where we’ve come in 2007, it was about trying to get to these moments, where you have an opportunity to play across the nation, and it has a sort of prominence to it or prestige to it at this point."

MSU’s comfort amid the national attention has been eight years in the making.

During the first three years with Dantonio at the helm, the Spartans went 22-17 and lost three consecutive bowl games. In 2010, MSU won 11 games to earn a share of the Big Ten title, but dropped its fourth straight postseason appearance, to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

That loss would be the Spartans’ last in a bowl game to date, though.

MSU went 31-10 over the next three years, which included an appearance in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, two Legends Division titles, one Big Ten championship, and three bowl game victories, including a 24-20 win over Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl Game.

It may have taken Dantonio a few years shy of a decade to coach the Spartans to the national stage, but it was a goal he made sure his players understood and worked towards from the moment they stepped on campus.

Now that the Spartans have earned a spot among the country’s best, and a chance to compete against them, Dantonio wants his players to enjoy every minute of it.

"We put ourselves in a position to play this game and receive this type of notoriety to do it, and I want our players to have fun with this," Dantonio said. "I want them to be excited about this and our coaches, as well, and use this as a life experience because that’s what this is all about.

"It’s about our players having a lifetime experience in this setting, at this time in their lives, that they’ll remember for the rest of their life. And if we do that, get excited about it and play hard, great things are possible. And that’s how we’ve always approached it."

There are possibilities for great things to happen for the Spartans on Saturday. Oregon will be a difficult test and a chance for MSU to gauge the level of its program against one of the most dynamic teams in the nation.

"There’s always cutting-edge things, and I think Oregon does some amazing things cutting edge that we’re going to have to deal with, but I’m sure it works the other way, as well," Dantonio said. "They don’t have quite the personnel to simulate maybe some of the different aspects, so it probably works both ways.

"But at the end of the day, the game’s played on the field and you know you got to be prepared to do it."