If you somehow confused Mark Dantonio’s press conference after the 2017 Holiday Bowl with a postgame quote from any of his other 99 wins at Michigan State, it’d be hard to blame you.
Discussion about winning physically? Check.
Senior leadership playing a major role on and off the field? Check.
Now there’s a personal milestone the 11-year head coach can check off his to-do list: 100 wins as Michigan State head coach. He’ll likely pass Duffy Daugherty to lead MSU in all-time wins in one of the next two years, as Daugherty won 109 games from 1954 to 1972.
However, in a hyper-competitive landscape, Dantonio’s tendency to keep the Spartans near the ten-win mark is as crowning an achievement of coaching ability as there is in this modern era of college football.
If on-field talent was to blame for 3-9 a year ago, then Dantonio’s ability to develop that same talent was on display during Michigan State’s 10-win year in 2017. No one is going to confuse them for the groups that reached the Rose Bowl in 2013 or the College Football Playoff in 2015, but players made out as scapegoats for a dismal Big Ten campaign turned that notion on their heads the following year. Players like Justin Layne and Khari Willis who were cast as below-par on a helpless defense rebounded in big ways in 2017. Layne went from a converted wide receiver who was learning on the fly in 2016 to a 6-foot-3 cornerback who had consistently solid performances in his first full year at the position. Willis is a probable captain next year who picked up his only interception of the season in the Holiday Bowl.
Once MSU picked up a rivalry win in Ann Arbor back in October, the theme of 2017 changed from hoping to make a bowl game, to hoping to make noise in the Big Ten. After a blowout win in MSU’s bowl game – something that sounds beyond comprehension when asked this time last year – the question at hand was about how the Holiday Bowl win can push the Spartans further in 2018.
“This season means so much because of where we came from,” Dantonio said following his century-mark win. “Because of the youth of the football team and the doubt from the outsiders along the way.”
Youth was the unknown that tempered expectations coming into this year, but Spartan fans might have wanted to also look at the known pieces in place throughout the coaching staff. Co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel and offensive line coach Mark Staten have been with Dantonio since his start in head coaching, all the way back in 2004 at Cincinnati. Now, more than a decade later, this group has been integral to the success that the entire Michigan State program has achieved: three Big Ten titles, a Playoff appearance, a level of consistency that confirms 2016 as a bump in the road.
Dantonio’s 100 wins have come in all shapes and sizes. Most have been of the grind-it-out variety, and far fewer have been convincing wins over respectable opponents. The 42-17 Holiday Bowl win to reach the century mark is about as un-Dantonio as it gets. But after going 3-9 a year ago, there’s no reason to complain.
“Last season everybody doubted Coach. We stuck with him,” Chris Frey said postgame. “One season isn’t going to change who he is or the way he treats his team. For us to come out this year and give him back the program to where we believe it should be, it’s huge for this team moving forward and even bigger for him.”
Now, moving forward is what the Spartans must do — with 19 of 22 starters returning to the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, as well as their entire special teams unit, there’s a chance 2018 can turn into a year similar to that of 2013 or 2015.
There are question marks surrounding center Brian Allen’s replacement, and despite finishing fourth in the nation in defensive S&P+, the Spartans still may need an excellent pass rusher on the edge to really put opposing offenses on their heels. Sophomore end Kenny Willekes had a strong 2017, but Demetrius Cooper filled an important role on the other side of the defensive line, one that will be sorely missed with his graduation.
LJ Scott coming back changes the equation for an offense that is going to be under scrutiny next year. An extra offseason of development for every skill position player that saw time in 2017 means they’ll have the talent in the ball-handling positions to win games. But the real microscope will be on the five offensive linemen returning in 2018: tackles Cole Chewins and Luke Campbell, and guards David Beedle, Kevin Jarvis and Tyler Higby. You can have a back as good as Saquon Barkley, but Penn State found out that having the best player on the field doesn’t always translate to wins if you’re getting beat in the trenches.
If those returning linemen develop as well as their youth suggests, Dantonio should have no problem passing Daugherty next season. MSU’s 2018 schedule stacks up favorably, with their toughest road game coming in Happy Valley (without Barkley and potentially quarterback Trace McSorley), and big-time matchups with Michigan and Ohio State at home, the game against the Buckeyes serving as a potential decider of the Big Ten East as it did in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
For now, they’ll have to live with 10-3, a mark that decades from now will be seen as par for the course. Whether or not 2017 will again serve as a stepping stone to a championship remains to be seen.