The graveyard of college football resembles a museum more than it does a final resting place. You can find it all in pristine condition: The Wing-T, The University of Chicago’s Football Program, The Fumble-Rooski, Les Miles, all with immaculately decorated tombstones surrounded by healthy and well-manicured grass. However, if you look off into the distance, you’ll notice a rather messy, hastily-erected, and disheveled grave site, and if you approach, you will see the following messily inscribed on the tombstone:
Michigan State Football
1896 - ?
There is a rusty shovel resting on the tombstone. If you choose, you can start digging into the dirty, hastily-covered patch of land directly in front of it. Once you get down far enough, the shovel will strike a wooden coffin. Once you clear all the dirt away, you’ll find that the coffin has some wear and tear on it, as if it’s been buried, dug up, and reburied at least a dozen times. You’ll also find that the latches on the coffin are undone, and there are no nails; theoretically, one could open it without any difficulty. If you do open the coffin, and expose its rotting, well-used, interior, you’ll make perhaps the most startling discovery; the coffin is empty.
The former repeat inhabitant of that coffin is not hard to find, particularly this week. The Michigan State Spartans are less than a week from the biggest game of their season, when their hated rivals, the Michigan Wolverines, come to East Lansing on Saturday. Michigan, riding high following a beatdown of Wisconsin under the lights at the Big House, is going to be expected by many to win this game, and there are many (valid) reasons why. Brian Lewerke has been scattershot at best for much of this season, and now he’s staring down the barrel of a Michigan defense more akin to a guillotine than a football team. Michigan’s ground game shredded a Wisconsin team that has spent decades not letting teams do just that, and the offensive line finally looks like they might not be terrible. Shea Patterson looks like a living, breathing quarterback, and Jim Harbaugh’s men, still remembering a 14-10 humiliation at the hands of MSU at the Big House in a second-half monsoon last season, are not shy about being out for blood. Michigan State lost to Herm Edwards.
But then again, paper is always kind to the Wolverines this week of the year, and the Spartans have a few toys in their back pocket. Lewerke is the type of scrambling, shifty quarterback that Don Brown’s defenses have been known to struggle against at times (think Trace McSorley, JT Barrett, and Brandon Wimbush), and Felton Davis III looks like Calvin Johnson with dreadlocks. But without question, Michigan State’s shiniest toy, their source of power, and the biggest thing keeping the Spartans from staying in that coffin, is the scowling, curmudgeonly, damn-near skeletal figure stalking around on the Spartan sideline with the headset.
Mark Dantonio knows this situation so well he could prepare his team for this game in his sleep. He’s staring across the field at a team ranked in the Top 10, boasting an array of players that have futures in the NFL, and is coming off a big win. Generally, a game against a Top 10 team would give most coaches pause for thought, but Dantonio is not most coaches. If anything, it’s how Dantonio prefers it. Since 2009 Mark Dantonio has beaten 12 teams ranked higher than his Michigan State team, and since 2011, has a 10-5 record against teams ranked in the Top 10. Yes, you read that right; Mark Dantonio, over the course of 7.5 seasons, has won 67% of his games against teams in the Top 10. This is a man who thrives on making favored teams suffer. He bleeds the clock away, he speeds the game up, he’ll harass inexperienced quarterbacks, he fakes field goals, he fakes punts, he’s one of the few coaches to have ever actually won on a walk-off hail mary. And he does it all despite being repeatedly given up for dead, season to season, game to game, quarter to quarter. He was going to win 7 games in 2010, he won 11. He was going to win 7 games in 2013, he won 13. He was going to win 5 games in 2017, he won 10. He was going to lose in 2010, down 10 to Notre Dame in the fourth quarter, he won on a touchdown pass off a fake field goal at the last second down 31-28, and he wasn’t supposed to be long for the profession after he suffered a heart attack two hours later. In his first game back after the heart attack, he was going to be broken open at the Big House by Denard Robinson; MSU won 34-17. He was going to get run out of Spartan Stadium by Wisconsin in 2011, he won on a Kirk Cousins jump ball to Keith Nichol at the goal line. He had no quarterback after Cousins graduated; Connor Cook became the winningest quarterback in school history and won the Big Ten twice. He was finished when Pat Narduzzi left after 2014; he went to the playoff the next season. He was done for, down two to Michigan with 10 seconds left in 2015. If you listen closely in Ann Arbor, you can still hear the cries of shock and anguish. He was dead after a teardown 2016. He won 10 games the next season, including two against Top 10 opponents.
Call him what you wish, be it a curmudgeon, a beneficiary of circumstance, a wizard, a survivalist, an escape artist, or a necromancer, but make no mistake, Mark Dantonio is a top 5 coach in college football. And yet, to a certain degree, he stands apart from the other coaches at the top. Urban Meyer is a tactical mastermind, Dabo Swinney is the energizer bunny, Nick Saban never puts a foot wrong, all three are masterful recruiters. Mark Dantonio is none of these things. His teams run one of the simplest schemes in football, he isn’t particularly charismatic, he rarely makes game-breaking adjustments, he doesn’t recruit the top athletes. His program is built on unheralded, willful, angry players who love nothing more than sticking it to the big boys. He brings them in, coaches them up, and feeds their anger and resentment until it boils over on Saturdays. When they win, they win, but when they lose, they get written off, and the more they get written off, the angrier they get. If there is a coach who can be viably compared to Dantonio, it would be Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen. Neither one recruits very many blue chippers, neither one is a renowned tactician, but both get consistently get results that shouldn’t be possible against teams they theoretically shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as. However, even this comparison has its limits. While Petersen’s Huskies are beginning to look like a perpetual Cinderella-style tournament team that takes a lot of force to stop once they get rolling, a bit like his Boise State teams that set the world afire, Dantonio’s Spartans are more reminiscent of a horror movie villain. They come out of nowhere, butcher their highly-ranked victims, leave viewers in histrionics, and never, ever, die.
Time after time, Michigan State has been subdued, exposed, and left to die, and time after time, they’ve come back from the dead to claim another victim. It happened after a rough 2012, it happened after Narduzzi left after 2014, it happened after the 3-9 2016 season. Each time, Dantonio climbed out of his grave and proved to the college football world he wasn’t dead yet. It happened again last week. Reeling after a loss at home to Northwestern, State was once again declared dead. Fans lost hope, Mike Valenti called the Spartans the most unwatchable team in the country, and they had to travel to Happy Valley for what many expected to be a date with their own demise. But once again, Mark Dantonio kept the Grim Reaper at bay, coming away with a 21-17 victory against the 8th-ranked team in the country, and now they’re looking to repeat it, against a team who knows all too well what they’re up against.
Michigan has lived this horror movie for the better part of a decade. Michigan State has beaten their Maize and Blue rivals 8 times in the last decade, and 6 of those losing Michigan teams were ranked. They’ve been bested by Dantonio in every conceivable way, from overtime heartbreakers, to fumbled punts, to self-inflicted wounds, to full-blown beatdowns. If anything, Michigan should be happy that State stunned Penn State, if only because Dantonio is no longer in a position that he can say nobody knows what his team can do. Following last season, and largely being given up on after the opening loss to Notre Dame this season, the Spartans won’t be the only ones with a chip on their shoulder. Michigan has the motivation, the firepower, the scheme, and the matchups to separate from the green cloud hanging over the program, but they have to slam the coffin lid shut this time, and the most prolific Wolverine killer since Woody Hayes will be prowling the home sideline, doing everything he can to keep that from happening.
There is a scene at the end of Wes Craven’s 1996 movie Scream, where the villain, Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich), is seemingly killed. The three surviving protagonists, Sidney Prescott (played by Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (played by Courteney Cox), and Randy Meeks (played by Jamie Kennedy), stand over Billy’s motionless body. Randy declares this to be the moment where the “dead” killer gets up for one last scare. Right on cue, Billy’s eyes flash open. Gale and Randy both scream, but Sidney raises a handgun and puts a bullet in Billy’s forehead, ending the movie. Year after year, Michigan has been in that position. They’ve had deeper, more talented teams, and had Michigan State on the ropes a fair share of times. Yet each time, when the Spartans have gotten back up, the Wolverines have stood there and screamed. So here we are again, Michigan riding high off a big win (yes Kev, Wisconsin was a big game), boasting another loaded team, going into a stadium that will be at least 25% Maize and Blue, against a team that lacks an offensive line, is injury ridden, and just pulled off the impossible in Happy Valley. Michigan is standing over MSU’s undying head coach, and there is no doubt, his eyes will open again. Will Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan scream helplessly, or will they end this movie that has gone on long enough?