Inside the Spartans: Michigan State survives storm to be contenders

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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.

More:

Michigan State football back in coaches poll at No. 16, Michigan up to No. 22

Michigan State football: What we learned, what to watch vs. Ohio State

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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