There he goes again, talking about the process, preaching the need for patience, giving that one-step-at-a-time lecture he must have repeated a million times.
“It takes time. You just don’t become a great defensive football team in one year, you just don’t,” said the coach of one of the Big Ten’s bigger surprises of 2013, whose regular-season finale comes Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. “It’s got to be done over a period of time. You’ve got to have the right players, the right ingredients, the right knowledge, the right experiences, the right mindset, the right coaches, the right concepts. … So it’s not something that all of a sudden we say, ‘OK, we’ve arrived in 2013 and here we are.’ ”
But lest that sentiment about this breakthrough season be dismissed as yada-yada-yada, know this: That wasn’t Jerry Kill giving his stump speech about the improving Gophers. It was Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio laying out the exact same road map recently, one that the Spartans have followed to a 7-0 Big Ten record and the Legends Division championship.
Saturday’s Gophers-Spartans matchup concludes Dantonio’s seventh season at Michigan State, one that may turn out to be his best. A victory Saturday and an upset of Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game next weekend would produce the school’s first 12-win season in its history, with a BCS bowl game to come. “People don’t realize how good a job Coach [Dantonio] has done there,” Kill said admiringly this week. “He’s built that program. He’s recruited well to his system. He’s built it on defense, very similar, really, to what we’re doing.”
Good point. In fact, though Wisconsin and Iowa are frequently mentioned as the Gophers’ blueprint for success, Michigan State may provide an even better model for Kill’s reclamation project. Dantonio’s success — this is the third time in four seasons that the Spartans have reached 10 wins — took a few years to develop gradually, and comes in a sports environment where the Spartans are frequently overshadowed (even by their own top-ranked basketball team), and has occurred despite obstacles, real or perceived, in recruiting.
The school has endured a long Rose Bowl drought, albeit only half as long as Minnesota’s, and Dantonio, like Kill, is a former defensive player who gradually worked his way up to a Big Ten job. Both coaches have even persevered through health challenges that temporarily kept them off the sidelines.
“They’ve been able to adapt and continue on, and that’s the same thing that happened when I had a [heart attack] in 2010,” Dantonio said of the Gophers’ continuity while Kill addresses his epilepsy. Dantonio, like Kill, coached from the press box while easing back into his coaching duties, but still served as the spiritual leader of his team as his assistants managed the day-to-day operations. “I believe that everything [at Minnesota] comes from Coach Kill — the philosophy, the dynamics involved in that football team, the people, and the way they do things.”
There’s no mystery to how Dantonio has done it: With defense. This season is the third consecutive in which the Spartans have allowed the fewest yards of any Big Ten team, and they have taken it to another level. Their 236.6 yards-allowed average is the lowest in the nation. In addition, MSU has held five of its 11 opponents to single-digit scoring, and 10 of 11 to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Archrival Michigan got the worst of it — MSU held the Wolverines to a Michigan-record minus-48 rushing yards.
“We’ve [been] pretty dominant in ’11, ’12, ’13, but it’s been a process,” Dantonio said of a veteran defense that includes six seniors, including All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard. “We’ve built a culture defensively on this team. We’ve built a culture of winning and sustaining. We’re playing great defense, but it just does not happen in one year’s time. There’s a lot that goes into it, a lot of thought, a lot of preparation by all parties.”