The culture change in the Michigan State football program over the last five years is not a fluke.
Coach Mark Dantonio started working on it from his first day on the job in November 2006, and it paid off Monday in the program’s first bowl victory in a decade.
Dantonio inherited a program with a losing mentality. The Spartans always did the wrong thing at the wrong time. They often played not to lose, instead of playing to win, at times even when Nick Saban was head coach. It’s why they were ridiculed and called the “Same Old Spartans,” even by their own fans, over the years.
This transformation hasn’t been easy. You saw that with another heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, which extended MSU’s Rose Bowl drought to 24 years and counting.
Through it all these last five seasons — the good times and bad — Dantonio has preached handling adversity. He has taught players to do that. He has recruited players to do that.
And when things looked down and out in the Outback Bowl — trailing 16-0 after Georgia scored on an 80-yard pass and a 92-yard punt return in the final 3:06 of the first half — the Spartans were able to rally for a thrilling 33-30 triple-overtime victory.
They needed help, especially a potential winning field goal in the first OT that was missed by Georgia. But the Spartans put themselves in position to complete the comeback with their refusal to back down.
“We just talked about if you want it, you’ve got to take it back,” Dantonio said during his postgame press conference, referring to the mood at halftime. “Keep believing. Just believe. And that’s what our guys did. We made plays and found a way.”
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard was a prime example of the Spartans’ resiliency. He was targeted as the man to go after in the secondary by Georgia’s offense. Dennard got beat for some of the big plays that left the impression Michigan State didn’t have a chance.
But he came back in the third quarter to make two momentum-turning interceptions, including one that he returned for a touchdown.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions in the final game of his Michigan State career, but he also regrouped and led his team on a game-tying touchdown drive in the final two minutes of regulation.
In reality, this whole team showed it can handle adverse situations just by bouncing back to win a bowl game after the letdown of not going to the Rose Bowl just a few weeks earlier.
The fact is many teams aren’t able to recover from that type of disappointment. They end up getting blown out in their bowl game because they don’t want to be there.
But Dantonio has built a program that now thrives on resiliency. It’s becoming their trademark.
They aren’t perfect. There are obviously more talented teams around the country. The Spartans will still have their share of ups and downs.
Nevertheless, don’t underestimate what this victory means to Michigan State. It was only a second-tier bowl game, and the Spartans certainly needed Georgia’s generosity to pull it off. But it was another major obstacle for them to overcome, breaking a five-game losing streak in bowls, four under Dantonio. MSU hadn’t won a bowl game since a Silicon Valley Football Classic victory over Fresno State in 2001.
During these culture-changing five years since Dantonio took over, the Spartans have now beaten Michigan four times, shared a Big Ten championship, played in the first Big Ten Championship Game … and finally won a bowl game.
“I think it just points towards us becoming an elite program in this league,” Dantonio said. “The standard has been set by our seniors. We’re going to have to continue to work and grow as a program. But everything is there.
“Two 11-win seasons (in a row), there’s not too many football teams in the country that are saying that right now. I would think that this win would hopefully help solidify a top-10 ranking in this year’s final polls.”
Michigan State’s comeback helped the Big Ten avoid getting shut out for the second straight season in five key New Year’s Day-type bowls, which were played on January 2 this year.
It also helped the Spartans’ reputation after last year’s 49-7 embarrassment against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Any time a Big Ten team beats a team that played in the SEC Championship Game, it’s a major accomplishment.
What’s still missing for Dantonio and the Spartans, of course, is that trip to Pasadena. But, rest assured, that’s coming in the near future.
Replacing Cousins and some of the other talent on the offense won’t be easy. However, from all indications, junior-to-be Andrew Maxwell is ready to take over after serving as Cousins’ backup the last two seasons.
What’s more, Michigan State’s defense loses only free safety Trenton Robinson, along with possibly (probably?) defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, a potential NFL first-round draft pick if he chooses to forego his final year of eligibility.
Even losing Worthy, though, won’t stop the development of this defense, one of the nation’s best this season.
A game-ending block of a field-goal attempt might be the start of a very big year for another defensive tackle, Anthony Rashad White, who is said to be nearly as talented as Worthy when he’s healthy.
With a 22-5 record the last two seasons, including 14-2 in the Big Ten, Dantonio doesn’t have to rebuild anymore. He has Michigan State at the point where he can simply reload and compete for another conference title, perhaps even that elusive Rose Bowl.
And the biggest reason for that turnaround? Dantonio has created an atmosphere where they refuse to give in to adversity, even a 16-point deficit against a talented SEC team.