The Spartans (9-1) are in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Ohio State. If Michigan State wins out -- the Spartans' remaining games are a visit from Purdue followed by a season-ending trip to Penn State -- the school will have its first piece of a Big Ten championship since 1990 and a chance to earn its first BCS bowl bid.
It has been a quick ascent under Mark Dantonio, who is in his fourth season in East Lansing since taking over for John L. Smith. Dantonio, who was coach at Cincinnati from 2004-06, entered this season with a 22-17 overall record and a 13-11 Big Ten mark with the Spartans, with a bowl trip each of his three seasons. He was looking for a breakthrough, and it has come in 2010.
The impetus was a thrilling September victory over Notre Dame, sparked by a fake field goal that led to the winning points in a 34-31 triumph.
A few hours after that game, Dantonio, 54, suffered a heart attack. He slowly has worked his way back to the sideline and kept the Spartans on track, highlighted by a win at Northwestern that saw Michigan State use another trick play (this time a fake punt) to rally from a 17-0 hole to win 35-27.
Michigan State's national title dreams ended with a 37-6 thumping at Iowa. But nothing really can sully this special season, which seemingly has come out of nowhere after the team finished 6-7 in 2009.
Rivals.com recently talked to Dantonio as he prepared to play host to Purdue.
Did you have any inkling that this could be a special team?
"I felt like we had a chance to be special based on how we went through the bowl game last year. We were down so many players [because of suspensions after a brawl], but our players worked hard. Then coming into winter workouts, we had a lot of guys hurt, our numbers were down and we still had some guys suspended. As I watched winter workouts, I was a little taken aback by our lack of guys out there. But the more I watched them, the more I saw how hard they worked and how they worked together. And by the end of February, I knew we had a special football team. That sort of transitioned through the spring, our bottom-line conditioning and summer camp. And it sort of flourished during the season with an influx of new young guys. I sort of felt like that, but I didn't know [how] it would translate into wins and losses. But I felt like we were going to have good leadership."
How disappointed were you with the fight on campus last November that resulted in the suspensions?
"I really don't want to talk about it. That's over and done with. I will say this about everything we have gone through: I believe that adversity, when you are able to work through it, it makes you stronger and it does regalvanize you."
What would it mean to get this program to its first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season?
"It would be a huge step forward for our program. Just as important as getting to the Rose Bowl is winning these last two games and being co-Big Ten champs at the very least. Where we go, we go. I can't control all of those things. But we can control our own destiny in terms of if we wear a championship ring or not."
"In the end, five, 10 years from now, or when our players are 40 years old, the fact that they have a championship ring on is going to mean as much or more than a bowl watch that says 'Rose Bowl.' We want to go there, there is no doubt about that, but we only can control so much of our own destiny based on the one game that we lost. We have to try to move forward with the intent that we will be champions."
What happened against Iowa?
"I don't think anyone played well or coached well. Things started rolling in the opposite direction and waves just kept coming. It was one of those things where we didn't get off fast and we didn't recover. Iowa is a good football team and it's a tough environment to play. We need to learn how to play in those environments away from home, and that's the next step for this program. That's maturity and we will continue to gain that."
What's the most unsung part of the team?
"I don't read everything so I don't know who's getting the attention. But the two areas with dramatic improvement have been our secondary because of our interceptions -- we have guys making big plays in the area -- and our running back situation, too. There's a big difference in how we have been able to run the ball this year as opposed to last year. I think Edwin Baker is about 29 yards short of 1,000 yards this year. [Le'Veon] Bell has been successful the first half of the season, and [Larry] Caper is a good running back, as well. We have more depth there and more quality players there. It's not about one person there. There's a good feeling about our players among each other there, too."
'I think he has taken control of our football team from an emotional standpoint, and I think it has been very, very positive.'
- Mark Dantonio, on Kirk Cousins
"Anytime you have a quarterback and he has an opportunity to get experience, there is no substitution for that. You can work all of the drills, but they only take you so far. The game itself is the ultimate experience for you. In '09, he had success. He had some tough games, but I can't think of one that he played just awful in. There were certain circumstances when he had great success. I think that carried over with confidence. He's a hard worker, he's very diligent, he's very intelligent. He has great qualities and intangibles that allow him to lead in the huddle, which is so critical. He makes great decisions at the line of scrimmage.
"All of those experiences he had in '09 really helped him blossom in '10. He has been a great leader for us. Even though he was named a captain for us last year as a sophomore, he really didn't take control of our football team. He needed to become the starting quarterback first. I think he has taken control of our football team from an emotional standpoint, and I think it has been very, very positive."
Before you took over in 2007, Michigan State was known as a team that often beat itself, lacked discipline and made silly mistakes. How have you changed the culture?
"I think we continue to try to put our players in as many game-type situations as we can in practices. And we talk about it a lot. Penalties have hurt us this year in some games. We aren't there yet. Our players have experience and are in a system, and you operate in that system for four years. And you have the same teacher teaching it, and not just the head coach but the assistant coaches. The person in the classroom becomes more methodical and they understand things more comprehensively and conceptually, and they basically are able to take their play and take it from a 'conscious competence,' where you have to think about it, to an 'unconscious competence,' where it is a habit and you are doing it right.
"You have to be able to play fast, but you have to play proper. I think our players understand what they are being asked to do and are doing it to the best of their abilities. They understand what they are being asked to do, and if they don't succeed, they can fix it on the field or the coach can fix it. Hey, if we aren't good enough, we aren't good enough. But we know what to do and we're trying to do it a high rate."
Talk about the fake kicks you used in key victories over Notre Dame and Northwestern.
"I don't think there's any doubt they helped us win the games. They came at pivotal times in each game. To me, it's timing and execution. The execution came from Aaron Bates in both occasions throwing the football. We had total execution on both of them.
"You have to make the call, there's no doubt about that. It can be scary sometimes. It's a calculated risk. It's not just a risk where we say, 'Well, let's just try one.' We don't want to beat ourselves or be a gimmick-type team. But I do think you have to have people prepare for you to do those things because it takes coaching on their part and time on their part to get ready. I do think those two plays certainly had an effect on those two games as to whether we were going to win them or not."
Did you call them?
"I am going to make those calls. I'm not going to put those on anyone else. I will take responsibility for those."
What has it meant to beat Michigan three years in a row?
"It's a statement for the program. It hasn't been done around here for a while. An archrival for us, so we will continue to keep that rivalry alive and continue to talk about it and build for it. That's just the way it's going to be here. To win is one thing. But the games, regardless of the scores, are always very tight and very emotional. You always have to bring your emotion to the game."
You were secondary coach under Nick Saban at Michigan State from 1995-99. What did you learn from him?
"I learned technique, especially in the back end of the secondary. Technique, timing, defensive schemes. I also learned organizational things from him. He's extremely organized in everything he does. And he's always going to be on the cutting edge of everything that's going on. He's always going to critique what he did and he's always going to try to make it better. He does an excellent job of it. He's obviously a very strong football coach. We still talk on occasion."
You were defensive coordinator for the 2002 Ohio State team that won the national title. Does this team compare at all to that squad?
"I always try to say that we will evaluate things at the end of the season and look at the full body of work. But the one thing I will say is we came off a 7-5 record at Ohio State in 2001. Our players had great chemistry the next year. I remember Mike Doss telling me he was coming back and wasn't leaving for the NFL because he wanted to win a championship. I remember Greg Jones telling me exactly the same thing this year when I was down in his home in Cincinnati, that he was coming back because he wanted to win a championship. So there is a parallel there, and I also think there is a parallel in the fact we are winning close games like that team did. Coming down to the end, our players are making plays at the end of games. And that's exactly what happened at Ohio State.
"We had a lot of good players there and a lot of guys who went on to play in the NFL, so the future remains to be seen. We have some very good players and we have an edge to us and great team chemistry."
How are you a different person since your heart attack?
"I hope I'm a little wiser as I move forward. I hope I'm a little kinder and show more compassion. You hope you learn from every experience in your life. I never really thought I would be in that situation. It gives me empathy for others who are going through the same things. In the end, I'm blessed to have my health and a complete recovery."