Youngstown St.-Michigan St. Preview
When Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack last season, the Spartans honored their "dad" by winning both games without him.
Less than a week following the death of Dantonio's father, the 17th-ranked Spartans will again try to move forward as they meet Youngstown State for the first time in Friday night's season opener in East Lansing.
Hours after calling a fake field goal that ended with punter Aaron Bates delivering a touchdown pass to Charlie Gantt for a 34-31 overtime victory over Notre Dame on Sept. 18, Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack and had surgery to put a stent in a blocked blood vessel.
He missed the next two games - a 45-7 victory over Northern Colorado and a 34-24 win against then-No. 11 Wisconsin - due to a subsequent blood clot in his leg.
The Spartans, who honored him in those contests with a "D" decal on their helmets, had Dantonio and his family in their thoughts last week when their coach left the team to be with his ailing father Justin in Zanesville, Ohio.
"We pride ourselves on being able to handle adversity," said offensive lineman Joel Foreman, a four-year starter. "Coach D is obviously the father of our family. We're a family here. To see him going through struggles like that, that a lot of people have experienced, it's hard. He's our dad. For him to go through that, we pray for him every day, we think about him every day, and we're praying for his dad."
Dantonio's 86-year-old father passed away Sunday night, but Michigan State's fifth-year coach is expected to be on the sidelines at Spartan Stadium after attending the funeral Thursday.
"... We will press forward, and that's what my father would like us to do," Dantonio said.
After leading his squad to a school-record 11 wins in 2010 and a share of its first Big Ten championship in 20 years, Dantonio gets a chance to face his former team in the opener - as does defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who served as acting head coach when Dantonio left last week.
Narduzzi was a linebacker at Youngstown State in 1985 under his father Bill, who coached the Penguins from 1975-85, while Dantonio was the defensive coordinator at Youngstown State from 1986-1990 under then coach Jim Tressel, helping the team reach the NCAA I-AA playoffs three times.
"I spent a lot of time there and a lot of things were built there in the time that I was there and then a lot of things came later with Coach Tressel," Dantonio said. "It'll be exciting."
Fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who begins his third season as the starter after throwing for a career-best 2,825 yards and 20 TDs in 2010, hopes Michigan State can deliver Friday night to help ease the pain Dantonio is experiencing.
"If anything, we play stronger because we do feel like we want to do something for Coach D and make him feel prouder, or at least give him less to worry about, because he has enough on his plate right now," Cousins said.
While Cousins, senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham (611 receiving yards and a team-best nine TDs in 2010) and first-team All-Big Ten running back Edwin Baker (1,201 yards, 13 TDs) will likely guide Michigan State's offense, the defense will look to slow down sophomore quarterback Kurt Hess.
The Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year in 2010 threw for 2,117 yards and 12 TDs during the team's 3-8 season under first-year coach Eric Wolford.
The Penguins, 16th in the FCS last season with 412.0 yards per game and 19th in scoring (31.3), have a new weapon in freshman Christian Bryan, who will start Friday in the 10th night game in the 88-year history of Spartan Stadium.
"Within four or five days of being here, he had a complete understanding of the whole offense and knew all the signals," Wolford said. "He's a guy that's going to find a way to win. ... We'll have an opportunity to see that on Friday night."
Cousins is one TD shy of tying Drew Stanton for fifth in Michigan State history with 42, while Cunningham needs 135 receiving yards to pass Derrick Mason for 10th all-time with 1,915.