It had been a while since Michigan State had been in a bowl game let alone had a consistent bowl presence when Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing in 2007.
Step one for the new coach was setting up the standard of playing in a bowl game, which he quickly achieved.
Since then, Michigan State being in a bowl game is an annual event. But the first four did not result in a win.
So in 2011, the Spartans changed the way they prepare for a bowl game.
”We’re trying to be innovate in terms of how we prepare,” Dantonio said. “I think we've taken a different approach and changed up our mentality or schedules a little bit to try and fit and make us as successful as we possibly can.”
According to Dantonio, the first goal in bowl preparation was to make sure players got rest and stayed fresh around the practice schedules, which he said can wear players down.
”They're going to get eight hours minimum,” he said. “You've got to have time to let them out because it's a bowl game, but they're going to get time to rest and hydrate, and make sure that we were fresh on game day, same things we do here.”
Early in his tenure, the practices centered on early morning routines in order to free up afternoons. He discovered, however, that the afternoons were not being used productively.
”We changed that and I think it helped us a little bit,” he said. “But there are some other things we did in terms of how we're looking at things, just small things.”
The change has been noticeable over the years, offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. The senior said it started in 2011 – his freshman season – in how the coaches get the team ready for postseason play.
”In 2011, he set up a new kind of formula and we kind of have been following that,” Jackson said. “They are really good at breaking down film and making it toward the team we are playing that year. Going into bowl practices, the coaches do a great job of preparing us.”
One of the advantages of preparing for a bowl game opposed to a normal game week is the added time, as Michigan State had from Dec. 7 on after finding out it would be facing Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
As a result, the Spartans use the time to install the offense and defense deliberately and piece by piece. The result is players focused and not bored in a repetitive way as the game nears.
“I think it just gets us ready, basically like when we are in the season, we do it repetitively every time,” wide receiver R.J. Shelton said. “This just gets us with a break, gets us back together and when the time comes, put it all in play.
”(The coaches) do a good job of making sure we know what we are doing. Obviously, know our opponent and make sure our craft is tuned up before we play.”
Senior running back Jeremy Langford said the way the offense is installed slowly over time does a lot for the players.
”We don’t have too many plays in at one time and we don’t get confused by having too much to work,” he said. “Day by day we can put in different plays and know how we can win a game against Baylor.”
It is that slow, deliberate build up and prep that senior offensive lineman Connor Kruse said allows the Spartans to really build a knowledge of their opponent.
”Every week, the first day we get in, we get all the plays that we are going to run and we have to know how the block them basically that first day,” he said. “Through bowl game prep, it’s just slow it down and let’s work on these plays these days and add a few plays in each day. It really helps us understand who we are going against and it’s really nice to get three weeks to prepare.”
So now with a system in place after achieving the first goal of just being in a bowl game, things have changed around Michigan State. Dantonio said it a credit to player believing and buying into what the coaches are telling them.
”We have very good football players and we're playing at a high level,” Dantonio said. “In each of those opportunities, where we've (won) the football game, we came in with an attitude and took an a approach that we were going to stay fresh, we were going to have a good time, but we were going to take a very business-like approach as well.”
But it starts at the top and trickles down to everyone involved in the program, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
The soon-to-be departed Narduzzi said one of the trademarks of Dantonio’s tenure has been having players ready for each and every game.
”Our kids play their tails off every week,” Narduzzi said. “Coach Dantonio does a great job of motivating our football team and coaches to give it everything you've got every week. That is one of the best things we do.
”You're not going to see a letdown. Remember when we first got here, "The same old Spartans." I haven't heard that in years, and I said that's a good thing.”