Dantonio’s Spartans ready for prime time
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State’s version of “Friday Night Lights” airs this week when the Spartans host Boise State in a game that will do wonders for the winner’s Bowl Championship Series standing.
And there’s a definite buzz that comes with a big game played in prime time.
“Playing a night game here is special,” Coach Mark Dantonio said Monday. “We don’t do it that often. When it happens, it’s a very live atmosphere. … A lot on the line. A lot of expectations.”
The Spartans have won three straight night games at home, and two were decided on the final play.
In 2010 against Notre Dame, punter Aaron Bates threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt off of a fake field goal for a 34-31 overtime victory.
In 2011 against Wisconsin, quarterback Kirk Cousins flung a Hail Mary pass to the goal line that deflected to Keith Nichol for a 44-yard touchdown on the final play of regulation for a stunning 37-31 win.
Mention playing at night to the Spartans and it conjures up thoughts of pure magic and signature triumphs.
“Spartan Stadium at night is going to be one of the best atmospheres you will find in college football,” new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. “I’m ready to go and this team is ready to go.”
Adding to the “lights, camera, action” excitement is the debut of a high-def Panasonic video screen scoreboard in the south end zone that, at 5,300 square feet, is nearly 10 times the size of its predecessor.
Two new video boards and a ribbon board also have been added to the north end zone to complete a $10-million project designed to bring a sense of theater to the gridiron experience.
“We have a tremendous venue here to show the nation,” Dantonio said. “The new scoreboards, the new video boards, they’re spectacular. It’s going to make the atmosphere interactive. I think our fans are going to enjoy it, and it’s going to be special.”
The stage will be state of the art, but the key here is that Dantonio has a team that is fully loaded, too.
State is ranked No. 13 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls. The Spartans have not been as high in the preseason since the 1979 squad came in at No. 10.
Having enthusiasm and optimism for the squad he runs down the tunnel with is nothing new to Dantonio, who said he felt as much with his first team here in 2007 before finishing 7-6. That more and more folks agree with him doesn’t appear to mean that much to him.
It’s a safe approach to take in public, but deep down Dantonio has to be feeling like taking a bow.
His program has arrived and is expected to fight it out for the Big Ten title with the defending champions from Wisconsin — who got their revenge last season in beating State in the conference’s first championship game — and a resurgent Michigan team.
Eight months go into preparing for a season opener, and Dantonio was asked to describe his emotions as the week has arrived to play Boise State, ranked No. 22 by USA Today and No. 24 by the Associated Press.
“Well,” he began, “my emotions are, ‘Hey, let’s make sure everything is checked off. Have we done this, seen this, seen that?’
“From my perspective, in the early games, a lack of attention to detail, a lack of doing the most elementary things, the finer fundamentals of every football game, come back to haunt you.
“That’s where my mind is with that. You know, you’re a little edgy. I don’t like people asking a lot of questions.”
The media members at the Spartan Stadium press conference chuckled, knowing the good-natured barb was intended for them.
“But you’re excited for everything,” Dantonio continued. “You’re going stir-crazy a little bit, too, because we have been preparing for this game for awhile. You sort of want to get into the game a little bit, start to play, start to adjust, start to find out who we are as a football team right now.
“Who are the 2012 Spartans? What are we going to try to do here?”
Those last two questions sound like something he just might propose to his team before taking the field Friday night, when the adrenaline is raging and a settling perspective is needed.
However, there are a few things to check off his list before that. One of those was meeting Monday with Maxwell, who has backed up Cousins for three seasons and finally will get his chance.
Dantonio’s message to Maxwell: “Be yourself. Be who you are.”
Dantonio will address the whole squad in regard to not peaking before kickoff.
“We talk a lot about emotion,” Dantonio said, “and getting themselves ready not just on Friday night.
“But it’s something that has to build. I feel like it’s building in our program for Friday night. You can feel that when you go out to practice. You can see that when we’re practicing.
“Those are good signs.”
The coach knows his team is ready for prime time.