BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Mark Dantonio’s teams have raised the level of expectation at Michigan State over the past 10 years. There are only a handful of college programs across the country that can go into season after season with legitimate aspirations of playing for a championship, be it a division, a conference or a national title.
Michigan State is in that select group. It’s a shock when the Spartans don’t play well.
The Spartans aren’t playing well.
A 24-21 overtime defeat to Indiana, a program that held aloft in celebration the Old Brass Spittoon for the first time since Dantonio took over in 2007, is the latest stunner. Notre Dame nearly rallied from a 29-point deficit two weeks ago before the Spartans held on for what at the time seemed like a big win. Then Wisconsin came into Spartan Stadium and handed Michigan State its worst home loss in seven years.
Now, Indiana comes back from a 14-0 deficit, scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives and winning the game on a 20-yard field goal after a previous 33-yard miss that would have extended the game into a second OT was wiped away by Michigan State’s 11th and final penalty. The Spartans had sent the game into overtime with a fourth-down touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation. Tyler O’Connor’s 2-yard pass to tight end Josiah Price capped off one of the best drives of the season by the Spartans.
This is a game that Michigan State (2-2) has routinely won under Dantonio. It finds a way to win these games. Indiana was the team that found a way Saturday. Now the Spartans are winless after two Big Ten games for the first time since 2007. They were ranked No. 17 in the country before the game. It’s hard to believe they’ll be ranked this week.
What do they play for now?
“You’ve got to remind everybody what this place is about,” O’Connor said. “Remind everybody who we’re playing for and what this program stands for: the guys that came before and those that have yet to come. You remind everybody of that and then keep playing.”
That’s the formula that has always worked for Dantonio. It’s the only one he knows.
“Players are competitors. You hope they’re competitors. If they’re not, then we recruited the wrong guys,” Dantonio said. “There are a lot of football teams that don’t go to the playoffs or don’t win a Big Ten championship. You keep playing. You play yourself into situations that get you to where you’ve got to go. You can’t count them before you play them.
“There’s a standard here and there’s a bar that’s been set. You have to play to that bar every week. You have to have high expectations, and I still have very high expectations. There’s not a team that we play that we can’t beat. Not one. But we have to play better.”
No longer can this season’s goal be to challenge Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East. Michigan State has to find a way to challenge Brigham Young next Saturday for a win. Then it can worry getting a first conference win against Northwestern.
“The goal is next week,” Spartans safety Demetrious Cox said. “Obviously we’re frustrated. You never want to lose. That’s also because it’s so close to being a completely different story, this week and last week. That’s just something where we have to come back, come in tomorrow, watch film and then practice hard and come back for next week.”
Sure, it’s coach-speak. Sure, it’s cliché. But that’s the standard Dantonio’s teams have set.
It’s been relied upon in the past. The Spartans have to rely upon it again.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo