Michigan State to Rose Bowl this year? Mark Dantonio has surprised us before | Windsor

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — Nearly 50 minutes into his hour-long interview at the Big Ten’s media days on Thursday, Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio interrupted yet another question about how he was going to improve his offense.

“Let’s talk about my cuff links,” he said, holding his wrists up for the pool of reporters to see as he sat at a table in the basement ballroom of the Hilton Hotel on Michigan Ave. “OK?”

“How about your cufflinks?” someone asked, playing along.

“These are Biggie Munn’s,” he said, referring to MSU’s legendary coach, who guided the Spartans to a national championship in 1952. “He wore (them) to the '57 Rose Bowl. I put those on for a reason this week. We are headed in that direction.”


And: what?

The team that finished 7-6 last season and failed to score a touchdown in three of its final four games is ready to play in the Rose Bowl?

Yes, he said.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio responds to a question during the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football media days Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

“Whether it’s the Rose Bowl or someplace else. That’s where we are going.”

He didn’t sound defiant — it’s too early for that anyway; fall camp is still a couple of weeks away. Nor did he sound irritated or defensive or as if he were trying to convince himself.

He sounded confident. And he should be. Not just because of the bevy of returning pro prospects on defense. Not just because he reshuffled his offensive staff and his quarterback — Brian Lewerke — is healthy and his offense couldn’t possibly get any worse. (I think.)

No. He sounded full of belief because he’s done this before. Been here before.

Or at least in a similar place. Coming off a 7-6 season in which his defense showed promise and his offense struggled.

You remember that year. You certainly remember the year that followed.

That was 2013, and it led to a Rose Bowl.

In other words, Dantonio knows he can do this. Knows he can retool or reboot or rework a team and take it to places few thought possible.

That should be reassuring. The lack of (obvious) speed on offense should not. Unless he’s got speed in places we didn’t know about a year ago.

Though if you listened to Dantonio on Thursday, along with the three players he brought to Chicago, last year’s foibles weren’t necessarily due to a lack of speed. They were due to injuries and, more important, a lack of purpose and intent.

“They got down on the themselves (last year),” said Raequan Williams, MSU’s pre-season All-Big Ten defensive tackle. “It was like, ‘We’re the reason we are losing.’ ”

This spring, Williams noticed a difference.

“I saw a big improvement,” he said. “It felt like everybody had a purpose. And not all the times you felt that (a year ago). This spring you felt they wanted to get better. And they came out every day and practiced hard. They got a lot better.”

Yeah, it’s a time of optimism. Heck, it’s not even August.

And while Williams and fellow travelers Kenny Willekes and Joe Bachie spotted similar improvements from their teammates on offense, none of the three talked about a potential juggernaut. Neither did Dantonio.

But he did kind of guarantee an improvement.

“I’m very confident of that,” he said.

How much?

That’s hard to say. But even a modest offense should be enough to push the Spartans toward eight or nine wins. A better-than-modest uptick gets MSU back into the conversation as contenders in the Big Ten East.

This may sound far-fetched considering Dantonio’s gone 20-18 his last three seasons. Yet sandwiched between his 3-9 team in 2016 and his 7-6 team last year was a 10-3 squad that surprised lots of folks.

Including me.

And probably shouldn’t have.

Because even before that year-to-year turnaround, Dantonio had already built two Big Ten-contending teams with two different sets of players.

He’s now done it three times, if you count his 10-3 team two years ago as a contender.

I do. At least until it got run over in Columbus late in the season.

So doubt Dantonio if you must. He won’t argue his overall record the last three seasons. Or that his offense was broken last fall. Or that he’d begun to set a standard that he hasn’t met lately.

He knows all of that.

Which is why his motto for the year is “Chase the Moment.” Based on a book he and most of his staff read this offseason titled, “Chase the Lion.”

It’s a spiritual book. As Dantonio’s a spiritual man.

“I think we are always trying to move toward something,” he said. “We’ve had great moments here. To me it’s about returning to those moments and chasing down those opportunities.”

On Thursday afternoon in Chicago, he and three of his best players — it’s not for nothing they all play defense — sat down to talk about a season that’s not as far away as you think.

Yeah, it’s summer. But fall will be here quickly. And Mark Dantonio has a story to tell.

Books, cufflinks and all.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.