Michigan State Football: A Look Back at the Mark Dantonio Era

Dantonio stepped down in February after 13 seasons leading the Spartans

Mark Dantonio abruptly resigned on Feb. 4 after compiling the most victories as a head coach of the Michigan State Spartans.

 

In total, he finished with a 114-57 record, good for the third-highest winning percentage in the program's history. His 69 wins against Big Ten opponents rank second in MSU’s history. Along the way, he won three conference championships, the most by a coach in East Lansing. He led the Spartans to 12 bowl games during his 13 seasons, winning half of those.

 

Here are the 10 most pivotal contests of his tenure.

 

Nov. 17, 2007: Michigan State 35, Penn State 31 (East Lansing, Mich.)

Dantonio’s inaugural season in East Lansing resembled the final two of John L. Smith’s disastrous era. Michigan State began the year with four non-conference wins. Then, the Spartans were slumping to 1-5 in conference games after losing a ten-point lead over Michigan in the final minutes of the contest. Instead of imploding as they had under Smith, the Spartans rallied. They won at Purdue the following Saturday. In the regular-season finale, they trailed Penn State by 10 with less than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. By answering with two consecutive touchdowns, MSU ensured its first winning season in four years.

 

Oct. 25, 2008: Michigan State 35, Michigan 21 (Ann Arbor, Mich.)

Following Mike Hart’s “little brother” reference after the 2017 meeting with Michigan, Dantonio smoldered for the 12 next months. As the game was tied going into the fourth quarter, the Spartans drove to the end zone on consecutive possessions. Meanwhile, the Wolverines punted, threw an interception and turned over the ball on downs. The victory ended the Spartans’ six-year losing streak against their archrivals, and it marked their first win in Ann Arbor since 1990.

 

Oct. 2, 2010: Michigan State 34, Wisconsin 24 (East Lansing, Mich.)

The Spartans rolled through their non-conference slate, 4-0, to start the year. But unlike three of the four previous seasons, Michigan State won its first Big Ten game of the season by jumping out to a 20-10 halftime lead against the No. 11 Badgers. The Spartans finished the year 7-1 in conference games, their most successful record since 1987. MSU shared the Big Ten championship, its first since 1990.

 

Jan. 2, 2012: Michigan State 33, Georgia 30 (Outback Bowl)

After trailing 16-0 at halftime, it appeared that Michigan State was staring at another beating by an SEC team in a bowl. However, MSU outscored the Bulldogs 27-11 in the second half to force overtime. After trading field goals in the first extra period, the Spartans connected on a field goal then blocked Georgia’s attempt. The victory ended a five-game losing streak in bowls to win their first postseason game since 2001.

 

Dec. 7, 2013: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24 (Big Ten Championship Game)

The Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. However, the second-ranked Buckeyes scored 24 unanswered points. Trailing by four going in the fourth quarter, Michigans State’s offense scored touchdowns during two of its three possessions. The Spartan defense held Ohio State to a punt and two turnovers on downs to seal the win.

 

The Spartans won their outright conference title then headed to the Rose Bowl and emerged victoriously for the first time since 1987. They defeated every Big Ten opponent that they faced, an accomplishment not matched by any previous Michigan State teams since 1966.

 

Jan. 1, 2015: Michigan State 42, Baylor 41 (Cotton Bowl)

After a 10-2 regular season, Michigan State headed to the Cotton Bowl for the first time. The game was tied after one quarter, but Baylor surged ahead by 20 by the late third quarter. After the Bears missed a field goal in the opening minute of the fourth, the Spartans responded with three touchdowns in four possessions. The defense did its part by forcing a turnover on downs and picking off a pass. The special teams blocked a field goal attempt to keep the deficit within a touchdown. The tremendous comeback proved that MSU’s program could remain top-ten-caliber in consecutive years.

 

Dec. 5, 2015: Michigan State 16, Iowa 13 (Big Ten Championship Game)

This game served as a de facto play-in game for a berth in the College Football Playoffs. Iowa was undefeated. Michigan State had one loss by one point.

 

After three quarters, the Spartans had converted on three of four field goal attempts, while the Hawkeyes had scored just two field goals. Iowa scored a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Then, the Spartans embarked on a drive to the endzone that consumed more than nine minutes and secured victory.

 

Dec. 31, 2015: Alabama 38, Michigan State 0 (Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal)

The Spartans’ defense played tenaciously and held Alabama scoreless until less than six remained in the first half. MSU's offense drove to the Tide’s 12-yard line with six seconds before halftime, only to throw an interception. Alabama blew open the game with three touchdowns in the third quarter. MSU’s attempt to avoid a shutout midway through the fourth quarter ended by turning over the ball on downs at Alabama’s 24-yard line.

 

The decline of a great coaching tenure, like that of a great historical power, begins with a disastrous event. However, the significance of the occurrence needs hindsight to reveal the beginning of the decline. The embarrassing result overshadowed the great achievement of reaching the CFP. However, this rout began the end of Dantonio’s tenure.

 

Dec. 28, 2017: Michigan State 42, Washington State 17 (Holiday Bowl)

Following the nightmarish 3-9 season in 2016, Michigan State rebounded by winning nine of its 12 regular-season games. But despite its record and top 25-ranking, the bowl committee passed over MSU for a New Year's Six berth, instead sending them to face Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.

 

The Cougars held a 3-0 lead after the first quarter. The Spartans offense erupted for three touchdowns in the second quarter, then two more in the third before Washington State could respond. The Cougars’ two second-half touchdowns could not gloss over the Spartans’ domination.

 

This served as the last great offensive performance under Dantonio. Over his final two seasons, the Spartans only scored this many points again once.

 

Dec. 27, 2019: Michigan State 27, Wake Forest 21 (Pinstripe Bowl)

A huge play on offense (64-yard pass) and defense (14-yard interception return for a touchdown) kept the Spartans within one point going into halftime. But Michigan State’s offense opened the second half by driving 73 yards to the endzone. MSU’s clamped down on the Deacons in the second half, forcing three punts and two turnovers on downs.

 

Epilogue

 

Many questions remain in the wake of Dantonio’s abrupt departure. Did he know beforehand that the Pinstripe Bowl would serve as his curtain call? Did he deliberately wait until collecting his bonus in January before resigning? Why did he not bring in any new offensive coaches as the team's efficiency glaringly declined over the final four seasons of his tenure? Did he leave assuming that NCAA sanctions were coming and did not want to be hampered by those?

 

Dantonio accomplished much at Michigan State. He compiled an 8-5 record against archrival Michigan. The Spartans were 6-4 versus Penn State under Dantonio. His teams competed in a major bowl in three straight seasons, winning two of those.

 

However, Dantonio had some glaring failures. His team flopped in his only opportunity to compete for a national title. He compiled meager records versus Ohio State (3-8) and Notre Dame (4-5). He could not maintain a high level of success for longer than three consecutive years. His teams won seven or fewer games in six of his 13 seasons.

 

How will history and Spartans’ fans remember Mark Dantonio? Ultimately, time will render judgment on Dantonio’s legacy.

 

— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.

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