Spartans grow under Dantonio
Some of the veterans were in diapers.
The Spartan program has grown up fast under third-year coach Mark Dantonio, with back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90 and consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 1996-1997.
Now it’s time to find out if Michigan State is ready to truly challenge Ohio State and Penn State for a Big Ten title.
The Spartans went 6-2 in the Big Ten last season, thanks to a fortunate last-second win over Wisconsin, but were blown out by the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. Combined score: 94-25, including a 49-18 loss at Penn State in the regular-season finale with a share of the conference championship on the line.
Those two losses show there still is some growing up to do before the Spartans can end their title drought—third-longest in the conference behind Indiana and Minnesota.
“We have to be able to ‘play up’ when we play in those marquee games,” Dantonio said. “I think some of that is just having the experience of being there before.
“When you’ve been in that type of environment before, when you are playing for that championship, maybe you feel a little bit more at ease in that environment.
“This next year we’ll have 70 players, 60 players that have at least experienced that feeling going into the game. And I think that will help us.”
Michigan State suffered through three consecutive losing seasons before hiring Dantonio away from Cincinnati. The Spartans went 7-6 in his first year and 9-4 last season, losing to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Recruiting has improved, particularly in Michigan and Ohio. Add in a somewhat favorable schedule—Michigan State doesn’t play Ohio State—and the Spartans are a trendy pick to be a factor in the 2009 conference race, despite losing All-America running back Javon Ringer.
The media picked Michigan State to finish third this season, mostly because of its defense. Eight defensive starters return, including linebacker Greg Jones, the media’s Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Jones was third in the Big Ten with 127 tackles in 2008. Linebacker Eric Gordon, who finished second in tackles for Michigan State last season, also returns.
Eight players who have started at least one game in the secondary are back. The defensive line is anchored by end Trevor Anderson, who had a team-high eight sacks last season.
Jones, a junior, says having so many players returning should improve a defense that allowed 22 points per game last season.
“We’ve worked together,” Jones said. “Communication goes a long way.”
The offense returns seven starters but has major holes to fill. Ringer, drafted by the Tennessee Titans, gained 1,637 rushing yards last season—second-most in program history.
He accounted for nearly 97 percent of Michigan State’s rushing yards in 2008, so freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will compete for carries right away.
Michigan State also lost quarterback Brian Hoyer, but Dantonio appears comfortable with his potential replacements.
Kirk Cousins, who completed 32 of 43 passes last season, and Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol could battle for the starting job well into September.
A bigger concern could be the offensive line, which returns three starters but lost guard Roland Martin and tackle Jesse Miller on the right side.
Michigan State returns three receivers with 36 or more catches in 2008.
Kicker Brett Swenson and punter Aaron Bates are among the Big Ten’s best special teamers.
The Spartans open the season Sept. 5 against Montana State, providing a good chance for a strong start. The Spartans will make a road trip to Notre Dame.
The Spartans open Big Ten play with a huge road game at Wisconsin.