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Sports & Fitness // Hot Air
Steve Murray

MSU A Force Beyond State Boundaries

One Rose Bowl victory doesn’t a legend make.

But with Michigan State’s 24-20 win over Stanford, Mark Dantonio has done something Nick Saban said was all but impossible: Win in Michigan without being Michigan.

Upon his departure from East Lansing in 1999 for higher pay in the SEC, Saban told reporters the Spartans always would be second-class citizens it their home state.

“At Michigan State, we were never No. 1,” said Saban at the time. “That was always Michigan. It was always, ‘UM this and that.’”

MSU finished tied for second in the Big Ten and Saban felt his team had been snubbed by the Orange Bowl in favor of the higher-profile Wolverines, whom the Spartans had defeated two months earlier. Even then the seemingly joyless Saban didn’t suffer fools gladly. Slow to receive recognition from the bowl committees and a proper salary advancement from his employer, Saban began his journey for more of both.

Dantonio likely never will match his predecessor’s success, but his two conference titles (in four years) and 5-2 record against Michigan has proven Saban wrong – the Spartans can compete for home-state dominance. Winning hearts will take longer.

Under Dantonio, defense has led the way. The Spartans’ play a SEC-level defense that is not only quick and physical, but technically sound. This year MSU was second in the FBS in run defense, fourth in points allowed and ninth in pass defense. That follows a pattern.

Coming into the season, Dantonio’s team shared the distinction with Alabama as the only schools to rank in the top 15 the past two seasons in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense.

To pour even more salt into Michigan’s wounds (and further claim in-state dominance in objection to Saban’s earlier statement), as defensive coordinator at Ohio State for three years, Dantonio won a national title in 2002, in which his unit finished second in the country in scoring defense. The next season, the Buckeyes finished 11-2 with the nation’s 10th ranked defense.

The guy can flat-out coach. Perhaps learning from past mistakes, MSU has signed Dantonio to a contract extension that will pay him in the neighborhood of $4 million a year – about the same amount as Michigan coach Brady Hoke, the guy Dantonio has dominated.

Michigan still may be first in the hearts of most Michigan residents, but MSU is the better team, better program and will continue its dominance of the state and further its rise up the national rankings. Next season should be more of the same, but with a better offense.

Running back Jeremy Langford returns for a senior season after rushing for 1,482 yards. Quarterback Connor Cook is just a sophomore and Tony Lippett will lead a receiving corps that likes to spread the wealth – five players had at least 20 catches this season.

Sparty’s defense will be tested as it loses six starters, including two members of its “No Fly Zone” secondary, but the bench is deep and MSU has 2013 Frank Broyles Award winner Pat Narduzzi in charge of the defense. Athletic director Mark Hollis is also at the top of his game, meaning “Little Brother” has the opportunity to become much more than a regional power.

Saban can’t get them all right.

smurray@midweek.com
Twitter @SteveMurray84

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