Mark Dantonio doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He doesn’t feel sorry for his Michigan State Spartans, either.
That said, there probably isn’t one program in the Big Ten that’d be willing to do so for a coach who’s won 11 or more games during five of the past six seasons. They wouldn’t do that for a Rose Bowl-winner who’s appeared in the College Football Playoff.
They all understand the nature of this thing.
And why would they feel sorry? Dantonio has beaten them all at one time or another. But this year has been much different than the norm for the Spartans. A 30-6 home loss to Wisconsin, then a 24-21 loss to Indiana, and then a 31-14 home loss to BYU — and finally, a 54-40 home loss this past Saturday to Northwestern.
Dantonio’s never lost four in a row at Michigan State. He’s never been handled so easily on his own turf, either. He’s never had such a jumble at quarterback. Never had a team, in East Lansing, that appeared so vulnerable and beatable.
However, there’s a “fine line” between victory and defeat in the Big Ten, which has four teams this in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 Poll: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan, No. 8 Nebraska and No. 10 Wisconsin.
He’s already lost to the Badgers. He doesn’t have the Huskers this year. But he still has to face Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes and Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines.
Dantonio’s not crying about his circumstances, though. He knows all about that razor-thin margin. He’s lived on it for nine years. He’s just never been split.
“For myself, I’ve always felt like, you know, you’re really never too far away from winning, and you’re really never too far away from losing,” Dantonio said during Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches call. “We’ve won a lot of games very close here — close games: seven points, even 10 points, even 14 sometimes.
“So, you know, it goes both ways. We’ve won some football games here where we’ve won on the last play of the game, you know — and whatever.”
Turnovers have cost the Spartans (2-4, 0-3) this year as well. Three in particular, Dantonio said.
They weren’t all game-changers, but they were important — all turnovers are important — and were correctly overturned by officials. Dantonio used the lost possessions to characterize the first half of 2016, which has been anything but a bounce in his favor.
“You know, you go one direction and think you’re sort of all hyped up, and then you don’t get it,” Dantonio said. In “retrospect,” those plays — at the time — “had a bearing” on the team’s energy.
“But there’s a lot of different reasons why you win or lose a football game,” Dantonio said. “What we’ve got to be able to do is go back and say, ‘OK, this is what we have to do to win, this is where we’re at — we’re in a storm a little bit — this is where we’re at. If you want to fix things, this is what you have to do.’
“And that’s everybody within this program, and so that’s what we will do.”
The 2012 season has been the popular comparison. Yeah, that 7-6 slumber was similar to this year’s struggles, but it wasn’t the first time Dantonio had encountered major hurdles.
“I’ve been in this before. If you coach long enough, you’ve been in it before,” he said. “I remember when I was at UC (Cincinnati), and it was 2005, and we were having a tough year. I looked out on the field and said, ‘Oh, we’re playing Penn State, and we’ve got seven true freshmen playing for us on defense’ — you know?”
It was the second game of 2005. The Bearcats lost 42-24 and finished with a 4-7 record. But years later as upperclassmen, those same players grew stronger and flipped the scenario. Instead of being pushed, they exerted the force, finishing with an 11-1 record in 2008 — the season after Dantonio opted to coach the Spartans.
“Well, inevitably, those seven true freshmen ended up playing in, I think, in an Orange Bowl, winning the Big East championship and those type of things,” said Dantonio,who feels the same could be true for his young players in East Lansing.”You just keep working. Keep drawing on your experience. Keep working — whether you’re a senior here or whether you’re a freshman or in-between — you keep working and you keep trying to remain positive.”
It’d be easy to roll over and give into the collapse. Remain positive? At 2-4?
On Tuesday, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team needed to “be on fire” for two quarters before ultimately running away with the game. Maryland coach D.J. Durkin, who hosts the Spartans on Saturday, won’t let a 2-4 record change his view of Michigan State. On film, during certain instances, the Spartans look like the familiar conference-contender he met one year ago as a defensive coordinator at Michigan.
Both Fitzgerald and Durkin acknowledged Dantonio’s struggles. But they also said that Dantonio will survive the trials and tribulations. They’re confident that the current tailspin won’t have an extended stay in East Lansing. Dantonio has proven himself. Michigan State has proven itself, they said.
“You have to remain positive. There is nowhere else to go,” Dantonio said. “I told our players the other day, ‘Hey, we’re on a long road, walking down a road. There’s no place to stop and eat. You’ve got to keep walking, or run — you’re not going to turn back… you’re just going to keep going down the road.’ So that’s what we will do.”
It can be a lonely road. Especially when it’s an unfamiliar path.
“We’re all here together on this, and it’s especially difficult for the people within the program — because of where we were nine months ago, getting ready to play in the College Football Playoffs… winning a Big Ten championship, those type of things,” Dantonio said. “This is not something that we’ve been used to, but it’s something that we have to deal with, and that’s what we will do.”