Michigan State quietly proves it's among cream of Big Ten crop

ajc.com

Mark Dantonio's wife, Becky, had three words of advice for her husband: Get over it.

The suggestion came after Michigan State was spanked 38-0 by eventual national champion Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal last season.

"That game sort of got out of hand," Dantonio said. "My wife tells me ... 'You lost.'"

The Spartans didn't do much of that last year. They finished 12-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten and 6-0 in the East Division, including a 17-14 victory at Ohio State with their backup quarterback.

While the Buckeyes and Michigan, thanks mostly to Jim Harbaugh, hog a lot of attention in the division, the Spartans have somewhat quietly reigned supreme in the Big Ten in recent years. They've won three conference titles since 2010, though last season's was packaged with plenty of hold-your-breath moments.

There were four three-point victories _ against Oregon in Week 2, against Purdue three weeks later, the Ohio State stunner on Michael Geiger's last-second field goal and against Iowa in the Big Ten title game on LJ Scott's 1-yard run with 27 seconds left.

Then there was the improbable four-point win at Michigan _ the Spartans' seventh over the Wolverines in the last eight meetings _ on Jalen Watts-Jackson's return of a fumbled punt snap as time expired. And a one-point loss at Nebraska on a controversial touchdown pass with 17 seconds to play.

But the taste of that Alabama defeat still is bitter to Dantonio, whose team will try to rebound beginning Sept. 2 against Furman, followed by games at Notre Dame and against Wisconsin.

"It's easy to walk around when you've won," Dantonio said. "More difficult when you've had a loss and you have to regain your composure."

The Spartans suffered another big loss after the lopsided loss to Alabama. Connor Cook, a fourth-round pick of the Raiders, was a three-year starting quarterback who helped the Spartans to two Big Ten titles and holds school records for victories (34), touchdown passes (71), passing yards (9,194), total offense (9,403 yards) and pass attempts (1,170).

Fifth-year senior Tyler O'Connor, who was 7-for-12 for 89 yards and a touchdown in his first career start last season at Ohio State that ended the Buckeyes' winning streak at 23, looks poised to take over for Cook.

"It's the role I feel like I was born to be in," O'Connor told WXYZ.com. "I think it's my time."

As Michigan State readies itself for what figures to be a three-team race for Big Ten East superiority with the Wolverines and Buckeyes, Dantonio has his sights set on improving his team's stature in his 10th season.

"We've had success here. We can sell that," he said. "With that being said, you always need to aspire to be a little bit better or go a little bit farther. That's the way we need to be built here."

And that's the way they'll keep on building, hype or no.

Dantonio said he wasn't sure which was more difficult, sustaining the program's recent success or building it to this point. Either way, the goals haven't changed, a school-record 10 straight bowl appearances notwithstanding.

"What we want to do is win a (national) championship," he said. "The next thing we want to do is prove ourselves to be consistent winners. I think we're doing that. But there's always that next step."