It’s hard to poke holes at Michigan State’s football program.
Yes, the Spartans lost two games last year, but those came against Oregon and Ohio State – teams that played for the national title. They won their other 11 games and even knocked off then-No. 5 Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
So yeah, it was a good year. And yet, something was missing.
That something may have been found this past Saturday, when Michigan State beat Oregon, 31-28, in a top-10 clash for the ages.
“I think that based on last year, I felt like we played pretty well, but we left some things unfinished out there just in terms of how we played,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “So for us, it was about finishing the football game and about handling adversity. It was a great crowd – outstanding crowd – and environment. Had everything that you wanted from a college football game environment. Fans and students were just unbelievable, and we sort of fed off of them, so we had a lot of energy. Everything they did, we sort of answered it. When they answered us, we sort of answered back. I think that was one of the keys of the game.”
The Spartans and Ducks traded blows all night, with Oregon leading by seven points early and Michigan State leading by 10 points late before ultimately winning by a field goal.
The game felt like a prizefight.
“Yeah, it really did,” Dantonio said. “As the game wore on, first of all, it was a very fast game on the field in terms of the quality of players that were on the field. I thought our defensive line did an outstanding job just building sort of a wall and our linebackers played off of it.”
The Ducks had 432 yards of offense, but they were just 4-of-13 on third down and 2-of-6 on fourth down. As Kirk Herbstreit pointed out during the broadcast, at no point did Michigan State look tired, sped up or out of sorts.
“We asked our guys to do three things from the start,” Dantonio said. “You had to get lined up, you had to adjust to different formations prior to the play and that you had to play hard. Because of that, we were going to have to sub it out. So I think we played nine different defensive backs, eight defensive linemen and six linebackers, so we were fresh. That’s what we were able to do against Baylor as well. We played a lot of up-tempo offenses and we’ve had experience versus Oregon from last year, so there was at least a history there in terms of how fast they would go. But I do think we stayed fresh. Our guys were gassed on the sideline, but we had fresh guys go in. We have depth on this football team, and I think that showed Saturday night.”
They also have a Heisman candidate at quarterback. Connor Cook, who threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns, improved to 24-3 as a starter.
“As I’ve said many times, as Connor Cook goes, so goes us,” Dantonio said. “He’s the driver of the ship. He’s got great leadership skills. And he’s got a personality where, yeah, he’s going to take it seriously – he’s hard on himself – but he can also roll with it. I think that’s really good when you’re a quarterback. You can sort of roll with things and be yourself and not be intimidated by the situation. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself and that shows on game day.”
The Spartans, ranked fourth in this week’s poll, don’t play another ranked team until Nov. 21, when they face No. 1 Ohio State (2-0) in Columbus. That probably doesn’t sit well with Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who took a shot at the Big Ten last week for what he feels are watered-down schedules.
Of course, while Sparty knocked off the Ducks, Bielema’s Razorbacks lost at home to unranked Toledo on Saturday.
Dantonio didn’t give Bielema’s comments much credence, saying there are quality teams, programs, coaches and styles all across the country.
“People can rise up and play against anybody,” Dantonio said. “You see that every single week. Our deal here is we need to focus on the moment. That’s what we’ll do. This win will pay dividends and puts us in the headlines and everything, but it doesn’t do any good if we don’t finish things. So our focus has to be on the next game. We don’t take anybody lightly. I know that this is a very difficult sport to play, especially between the lines, and I respect that aspect.”
Michigan State hosts Air Force (2-0) this Saturday at 12 p.m. ET.