Michigan State Spartans hold a press conference after their win at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
Cody J Tucker/Lansing State Journal
The one is done.
And none of the other numbers matter. Not 8 of 10 in the series. Not two straight at Michigan Stadium. Not even 4-1 and 2-0 in the Big Ten.
All that matters to Michigan State moving forward is the one. One and done. Keep focused on one game at a time.
Yes, that’s cliché coach speak. But before the Spartans can talk about College Football Playoff berths again, before Mark Dantonio can point toward another conference championship, before they can even think about homecoming against Indiana, they need to forget about the emotional and intense rivalry win.
It’s Minnesota week. Michigan is in the past – just like last season’s 3-9 record. Just like the players lost in the off-season.
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“Obviously we needed to bounce back. We made a commitment to do that as a football team and as a program way back in the spring,” Dantonio said late Saturday night after the Spartans’ 14-10 win over the Wolverines. “You know, obviously we had some different things going on in the second semester as well, but I knew we would rally up. I knew that our football team and our program would basically come back up to the top.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to do it step by step. I’m extremely proud of our guys with the way they kept playing. Really what we did was just, we just played, literally, we played one play at a time.”
That has been what MSU coaches have preached to their players since preseason camp. But Saturday’s victory could change the focus. MSU is ranked for the first time this season and perfect in two Big Ten games. Games with Penn State and Ohio State begin what could be a decisive November schedule.
But those are still a month off. This next three-game segment of the Spartans’ schedule – at Minnesota, at home vs. Indiana, at Northwestern – is even more critical. And even that has to be broken into three portions, if not more.
Minnesota (3-2, 0-2) is exactly the type of team that historically has been kryptonite to a successful MSU season. It’s something not even Nick Saban was able to overcome during his tenure.
Like in a 1997 season, when MSU opened the year 5-0, then got caught looking ahead to Michigan and lost to Northwestern. That sent Saban’s team into a four-game slide.
Or in 1999, Saban’s last year, when he had arguably his best talent and beat a previously unbeaten Michigan team, 34-31, to improve to 6-0. The Spartans came out the next two weeks and got blown out by Purdue and Wisconsin, the only losses in a 10-2 season.
Dantonio was able to do that throughout his first nine seasons before last year, when a loss to Wisconsin spiraled into seven in a row. That 3-9 group never figured out how to compartmentalize each game and dust away any residue of success or failure from them and move on to the next game.
More:What we learned about MSU vs. U-M, what to watch at Minnesota
Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch, Detroit Free Press / LSJ MSU beat writer Chris Solari and Free Press columnist Shawn Windsor break down the Spartans’ win in Ann Arbor Saturday night.
Graham Couch / Lansing State Journal
The Spartans appear to have a better hold on that a year later, even with the youngest team of Dantonio’s tenure. The loss to Notre Dame – like the one in 2013 – appears to have galvanized this team instead of tearing it apart. That 2013 group did not lose again, following it with a win over Iowa like this year’s team.
“We gave our blood, sweat and tears from Day 1 of the off-season,” senior captain Chris Frey said. “All of this is coming to fruition now and paying off.”
That’s not to say this Spartans team is going to replicate the 2013 feats. That Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl-winning squad was packed with veterans on defense to pick up for a struggling offense early. The 2017 version contains similar youth, though that becomes less of an issue as the midpoint nears and those previously unknown commodities have received more snaps than ever in their careers.
Dantonio said late Saturday night that he believes MSU is “becoming a good team” but did not “know if we’re there yet.”
“We’ve gone through some things this past season that has given us pause and caused, I think, a great amount of growth for us, actually,” Dantonio said on his Sunday night teleconference. “You see how things played out last season when we went through some of the different things we went (through) in the spring. All these things, I think, helped to give us some resolve, and hopefully makes us a mature person on the football field and away from the football field.
“And I think that you have to have a certain amount of discipline and maturity within your program in order to handle success, and that’s what we now must do. … I think we have to have a certain amount of maturity to handle the success that we’ve had here recently. So we’re gonna find more out about our football team in all areas.”
Some players, like senior center Brian Allen, said MSU may not face a tougher defense than Michigan’s. But that does not matter now. The momentary enjoyment is over. There is no time to dwell or look back. Or look too far into the future.
Think you can win a Big Ten title? Beat Minnesota.
“We’re getting a little bit more confident with every outing,” Dantonio said Sunday. “So we need to stay focused and stay in the present.”
Michigan State report card: Defense dominates, offense plays smart
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
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