Good Start for Dantonio

Last season in East Lansing, Michigan State was in complete control of Notre Dame and leading the contest 37-21 with under nine minutes remaining. The Spartans were dominant in almost every facet of the game and looked primed for the upset. But the Irish staged a furious rally, capped by Terrail Lambert's decisive interception return for a touchdown to give a stunning 40-37 victory.

Alot has changed since that game. It was the beginning of the end for quirky Spartans head coach John L. Smith tenure in East Lansing. On the first of November, it was announced Smith would not return for the 2007 season. It took a month's time to secure Mark Dantonio, who was the head coach at Cincinnati from 2004-06. Dantonio spent six years as an assistant at Michigan State from 1995-2000.

The Spartans head coach has got off to a successful start. Michigan State is 3-0 on the year after a 17-13 home victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday afternoon. The Panthers came into the contest at 2-0 and had a last second drive thwarted by the Spartans defense. How good is this Michigan State team? Dantonio thinks time will tell.

"If we beat a Pitt team that loses one game, then obviously we've played very well," Dantonio said at his Monday press conference. "So that remains to be seen a little bit. It's an intangible. But a lot of that I think rests with, as I said before, we need to continue to win the respect back of our fan base and the people. And that is an ongoing thing."

The fan base had good reason to lose faith last season. After starting out 3-0, the Notre Dame debacle started a steep downward fall for the Michigan State football program. The Spartans lost eight of their final nine games of the season to end the year at 4-8. Smith's departure was announced after Indiana trounced Michigan State 46-21 in Bloomington.

Enter Dantonio to pick up the pieces. The Cincinnati head coach led the Bearcats to a 7-5 mark. The biggest victory was a 30-11 win over then-No. 7 Rutgers. Four of the five losses came to ranked teams. Dantonio took the job and the fast start has the Spartans feeling good heading to South Bend this weekend.

Michigan State's opponent this weekend, Notre Dame, is facing a ton of problems on both sides of the ball. The Irish have one of the worst offenses in college football and rank dead last in Division 1A in rushing offense, total offense, scoring offense and sacks allowed. To make matters worse, the Spartans are 19th in total defense and tops in the nation in sacks, giving Notre Dame's beleaguered offensive line another stiff challenge.

Irish head coach Charlie Weis has been unable to find any answers to the problems. In addition to the offensive woes, the Irish cannot stop the opponents' ground attack, ranking 113th in rush defense. Weis abandoned the usual week of practice and has taken his team back to a "training camp" environment. It's about the only move for a desperate team that's been outscored 102-13 through three contests. Michigan State fully expects to see a wounded team that'll play hard this Saturday afternoon.

"They get an opportunity to come back home," Dantonio said. "And it's always more special when you're playing at home. It's very difficult to win away games. You look across the Big Ten and you can see that every day. So we have to have the mindset when we go down there. I expect Notre Dame to be emotional. I expect them to be prepared, well prepared and eager to play. I'm sure if they could play tomorrow, they would."

The Spartans have two advantages in their favor this weekend. For starters, historically Michigan State has not feel intimidated in the least of Notre Dame Stadium. The Spartans have won the past five contests in South Bend, including a thrilling 44-41 overtime victory back in 2005, which was Weis' first season as head coach.

Secondly, Michigan State will be looking for revenge from last year's collapse in East Lansing. Jehuu Caulcrick's 30-yard touchdown run put the Spartans up 37-21 late in the third quarter and the party appeared to be on. But Notre Dame stormed back with 19 consecutive points to win the game and get their season back on track.

The Irish used the win to catapult to a 10-3 season and a second straight BCS Bowl appearance. Michigan State's year went into the toilet. Georgia Tech and Penn State have already exacted revenge on Notre Dame this season with 20-plus point blowout victories after losing to the Irish in 2006. The Spartans could be the third team on the list to add to the Irish's miserable season.

"You should be motivated by what happened," Dantonio said about last year‘s loss. "And I'm sure Notre Dame's players are motivated by what's happening to them as well. So everybody wants to succeed and they're driven, and there are different pressure points on people. So I'm sure that some of our guys feel it. Last year we were 3-0 as well at this point in time."

Notre Dame fans should get ready to see a heavy dose of Caulcrick and Javon Ringer on Saturday afternoon. Caulcrick is the big power back at 6-0, 255-pounds while Ringer is the shiftier of the two at 5-9, 200-pounds. Together, the two running backs combine for 150 yards per game on the ground and with the Irish's inability to stop the run, it could be another long day for the Notre Dame defense. Michigan State looks to become the first team ever to win six straight games in South Bend. It's part of Dantonio's message to exceed expectations.

"We'll go down there with the mind set that we need to become overachievers," Dantonio said. "The message to our football team last night was we need to overachieve, and we'll continue to take steps towards doing that regardless of where we are record wise. That is the biggest compliment anybody can tell a person to me is when they overachieve. They go beyond their abilities. We need to be able to do that."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories