Spartans’ coach stays upbeat
EAST LANSING, Mich. Mark Dantonio has never been more excited for Michigan State to begin a Big Ten football season.
After a 1-2 start, with last-minute losses to Central Michigan and Notre Dame, his Spartans will visit Wisconsin (3-0) on Saturday.
The chance to win the conference opener lessens the pain of blown opportunities the past two weekends. Michigan State lost back-to-back games by five points or less for just the second time in school history.
“In any kind of game, even checkers, if you lose a close one at the end, there is a belief that you can be successful,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We very well could be 3-0. We were only a couple of plays away.”
Despite an offsides penalty that allowed a game-winning field goal and a blocked extra point that changed the final-drive strategy, the Spartans’ biggest problems have been on defense.
Dantonio knows his team will have to play better against the pass, tackle better and produce more takeaways if it hopes to beat the Badgers, let alone contend for a Big Ten title.
“We haven’t had anything handed to us,” Dantonio said of a defense with no fumble recoveries and two meaningless interceptions. “We’ve always started inside our 40. The tackling is about getting the other guy down and getting the second guy in on the hit. We keep working on it.”
This week’s depth chart includes freshman Chris Norman, who will make his second start at strongside linebacker, and Kendall Davis-Clark, who takes over for struggling Chris Rucker at boundary cornerback.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins seems solid in the No. 1 spot, despite an overthrow and a poor decision that caused an interception on his team’s final drive at Notre Dame.
“Which armchair quarterback is talking like that?” Dantonio said of a suggestion that a change could be made. “Tell them to have another cup of coffee. For people sitting out there wondering, that’s not going to happen. If we make a decision to change, it’s because one guy is playing better than the other. It’s not a popularity contest.”
Cousins leads the Big Ten and ranks 14th in the nation in passing efficiency. He hit 23 of 35 throws for 302 yards against the Irish. But if his last two snaps changed some impressions, they didn’t change his coach’s mind.
“If we would have scored, they’d be talking about him like he’s Joe Montana, not Joe off the pickle boat,” Dantonio said. “But it’s not the critic who counts.”
Though Wisconsin could have a score to settle after losing a seemingly safe lead and losing on a last-snap field goal by Brett Swenson last season, Michigan State has extra motivation, too.
The idea for the Spartans is to remain positive, correct mistakes and never panic.
“You can either crush them and tell them they’re no good, or you can embrace those people and bring them with you,” Dantonio said. “We’ve always chosen to embrace our players. If you tear down, you tear down everything. A crack doesn’t knock your foundation over.”