Chris Solari, Shawn Windsor and Lansing State Journal sports columnist Graham Couch — STILL at Spartan Stadium — recap MSU’s 27-24 upset of No. 7 Penn State.
Detroit Free Press staff
EAST LANSING – Mark Dantonio, a former education major, loves allegories and metaphors. One of the Michigan State coach’s oft-used favorites involves a storm.
Withstanding it. Being it. Finding the calm at the center of it.
So call the Spartans’ recent run of inclement weather games anything you like. Symmetry, kismet, karma, prescient or pure coincidence. Whatever. Dantonio and his players are watching the clouds of the 2016 and the darkness of a long and often arduous offseason dissipate. One rain-soaked victory at a time.
“Everybody’s playing through things, just playing through adverse situations,” Dantonio said Saturday. “We play in good weather games, too.”
After a 27-24 victory over Penn State, the skies keep brightening for No. 16 MSU. The Spartans continue to defy preseason prognostications coming off a three-win season a year ago, improving to 7-2 and — more importantly at the moment — sitting tied atop the Big Ten East Division standings.
And their next opponent, No. 11 Ohio State, is a team MSU knows a thing or two about upsetting under Dantonio. See the 2013 Big Ten championship game victory and the 2015 regular-season shocker in Columbus without Connor Cook. Like two of their last three meetings, this one likely will determine whether the Spartans or Buckeyes are bound for Indianapolis and a shot at a conference championship.
That last trip to Columbus two years ago looked much like Saturday’s win over Penn State, with MSU outlasting a cold, driving rain to march down the field for a game-winning field goal as time expired. That game, with Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry sharing quarterback duties, was as much about the confidence the eventual Big Ten champs exuded as it was about their game-plan.
This year’s MSU team, after months of unknowns, slowly has discovered and developed its own identity. And it goes back to sitting in the middle of those monsoons at Michigan and Minnesota and again on Saturday. Resiliency — as Dantonio preached and predicted before the season — has become the Spartans’ hallmark in 2017.
This is as about the players who did no wrong in the offseason sticking together through the sins of their peers and former teammates who either left or were dismissed. It is about watching first-half leads evaporate a year ago, only to flip into second-half survivalists, save for their lone Big Ten loss at Northwestern. It is about a young collective without much experience learning lessons one week at a time.
It also is about a coaching staff that admittedly did not know what to expect other than mistakes along the way with so much turnover and so many new faces in critical roles. They needed to be patient. They needed to adapt. They needed to adjust. Most of all, they needed to trust — their teachings, their system, their philosophies, their players, each other.
They’ve done it all together to become contenders in November again.
The past two weeks have revealed a coaching staff willing to be flexible and let the Spartans’ identity grow organically. They’ve let quarterback Brian Lewerke throw 113 times in the past two games. It’s paid off with 845 yards through the air and a new-look offense that previously ran the ball as a powerful and physical tone-setter. It has sent a different message — there is trust in Lewerke and his receivers to deliver when it matters most.
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MSU’s margin for error remains thin. Its five Big Ten victories have come by a total of 25 points. The Spartans’ lone conference loss came in overtime by 8 points after a late rally in regulation. “Finding the inches” in Dantonio’s parlance means finding a way to win, however necessary.
Saturday showed that again. Kenny Willekes hitting Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley barely in time to force an underthrown interception instead of a long touchdown pass. Lewerke barely dancing away from defenders to throw “darts down the field. Getting hit just enough to draw a roughing-the-passer penalty to set up a chance at a game-winning field goal.
A prayer card from Dantonio for kicker Matt Coghlin. Like the one he handed Michael Geiger on the sideline at Ohio State in 2015. An upright-splitting kick and onfield celebration.
As the Spartans splashed and dashed their way back to the locker room, another chance to seize their own Big Ten destiny waiting next week at Ohio State, the Spartan Stadium sound system began blaring the song “You’re Welcome” from the movie, “Moana.” A week earlier, Dantonio got unexpectedly serenaded with after losing at Northwestern. The words now seem prophetic.
“Okay, okay, I see what’s happening here/You’re face-to-face with greatness and it’s strange/You don’t even know how you feel, it’s adorable/Well, it’s nice to see that humans never change/Open your eyes, let’s begin.”
Dantonio gave a “You’re welcome” to the fans who remained after the rain. The trials and tribulations of the past year giving way to their “Thank you” return chorus of cheers.
Out of that hole after the rains bloomed revitalized expectations. And a chance for one more test of resiliency next week.
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!