ANN ARBOR, Mich. - This time, the words rang differently.
"It'll never be over," Mark Dantonio said following Michigan State's 12-10, last-second loss to Michigan on Saturday, repeating his iconic refrain of 2007.
Back in '07, he was livid, having felt disrespected by Michigan players and coaches on the field and in the stadium tunnel following a loss to the Wolverines in his first year as head coach.
This time, he wasn't angry, wasn't firing back at anyone. The words had a different feel this time, and he wanted them to. Now that he is six years into his tenure as head coach at Michigan State, coming off of four straight victories over Michigan, those words no longer carry a tone of desperation. Now they are just a lucid promise. And they're more believable.
"I'm not trying to be controversial here, so please don't take it like this, but in a positive way ... it'll never be over," he said after the game. "And that's the thing for us to realize. We'll play again. That's the positive. It's not like the series is ending. So we'll be all right.
"It's hard to take, but it's not the end game here."
Michigan fans expected to win handily, and boast of a restoration of order, of smacking Sparty back to its rightful place. But Michigan fans were reduced to worrying, nibbling at their cuticles, praying that their kicker would make a 38-yard field goal at the end.
Brendan Gibbons made the field goal, and Michigan fans stormed the field.
Three or four Michigan players sprinted to the Michigan State sideline and yelled some words at the Spartans. Many of us assumed they were taunting the visitors, perhaps writing a new chapter of ugliness in this rivalry that has had volumes of it. But it was more innocent than that.
"I think they wanted Paul," Dantonio said in reference to the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Michigan fans storming the field after beating Michigan State? Wolverine players desperately wanting to get their hands on the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the first time in their careers?
Yes, there is a new chapter to this rivalry. And yes, Dantonio is right when he says it's just starting.
The Future Feels Different
This loss stung Spartan fans. But it didn't feel like the devastating near-miss, comeback losses to Michigan of 2004 and 2007 or the overtime defeat of 2005. Although those painful losses were grouped within a tight, four-year window, each of them seemed like a solitary opportunity, like a chance for a monumental upset and 364 days of symbolic supremacy had gotten away. Individually, they seemed like opportunities MSU might not revisit for years to come.
Saturday's loss hurt too. But the foreseeable future feels different.
I've never witnessed a Michigan State team lose to Michigan and come out of it with such strong chances of regaining the Bunyan Trophy the following season.
Michigan fans thought a convincing victory here today would foreshadow a run of rivalry dominance similar to the pre-Dantonio days. Instead, I think Michigan State is poised to grow much stronger in 2013 as the Wolverines prepare for life after Denard Robinson.
Michigan State will wrap its knuckles again next year and deck Michigan harder and more repeatedly than anyone on the Wolverines' schedule. And they know it. And that's why Saturday evening marked the happiest Michigan fans have been since they rooted Ohio State on to victory over the Spartans three weeks ago.
When an annoyed Dantonio fired back at Michigan's mocking of the Spartans in 2007, we appreciated his fire. We felt his pain. But did we believe him? Did we really believe Michigan State would "measure up," as he promised, to the tune of four straight wins, to go along with conference trophies in 2010 and 2011? I can't say that I did.
And Saturday evening in a cramped, dank, cinderblock-walled interview room, he was again hurting in defeat, but not bitter. He was careful all week to avoid disrespecting Michigan with his comments. He never came out and said it, but it seemed clear that he regretted responding to an ESPN questioner in the summer about the rise of Michigan as a supposed Big Ten power and recruiting juggernaut. Dantonio wanted that questioner to remember that Michigan State had scored four straight wins over the Wolverines, and overstated his point by asking, "Where's the threat?"
This week, Dantonio was sheepish about that stuff, saying that "the other guy," meaning his alter ego, must have said those things.
He doesn't want to be the guy who makes snide comments in victory or defeat. When it came time to talk about his first loss to Michigan since 2007, Dantonio was prudent in acknowledging the importance of the loss, but also assuring that attention would return to the work ahead.
"I'm very proud of our football team, how we played, how we acted, how we responded, how we battled back and how we played the football game," he said. "Beyond that, I can live with what happens; you have to be able to live with what happens. You don't like it, but I'll handle it."
Others haven't handled it. In this same cinderblocked room in 2002, someone asked Bobby Williams after a blowout loss if he had lost his team. "I don't know," Williams said. He was fired days later.
This year's team is nothing like that one. It plays defense.
In the same room in 2004, I watched John L. Smith and former offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin fight back tears in the aftermath of letting a 17-point fourth-quarter lead slip away at Michigan.
Somewhere within these same walls and corridors, Biggie Munn once stood, as a first-year Michigan State coach in 1947, following a 55-0 loss, in a flooded locker room, which he suspected was the result of Wolverine sabotage, and vowed revenge and redemption. He eventually exacted it, repeatedly in helping the Spartans become a national power, earning a Big Ten invitation, and infuriating Michigan.
We've seen this stadium break Michigan State coaches. We've also seen it drive Spartan coaches to legendary successes.
Dantonio was 2-0 here, prior to this game. This is his first loss at Michigan. He didn't have to fight back tears. He didn't have to promise revenge. There is no question he still has the reins of his team. He simply stated his view of what he believes to be the truth, that Michigan State will rise again. Unlike some of the others at a similar stage, he carries unspoken credibility.
The Future Feels Different
We haven't seen a tight, defensively-crisp, low-scoring, physical MSU-Michigan game like this since 1989 when Schembechler's Wolverines beat the Spartans 10-7 at Spartan Stadium. "The better team won," Bo bristled after the game.
We didn't know how much those words offended Michigan State head coach George Perles until 12 months later when his hard-hitting Spartans knocked off then-No. 1 Michigan at Michigan Stadium.
"The tougher team won," Perles said with gruff satisfaction.
Where Perles comes from, there is more honor in being tougher than better. That approach served the program well in some years.
The tougher team didn't win on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. But the toughness will carry on for Michigan State. That toughness will serve as a key component for better Spartan performances and outcomes in the near future.
The Spartans didn't have enough to beat Michigan this year. Not enough explosiveness on offense, speed or ball skills to improve to 5-3 in a hard-luck season.
Losing to Michigan hurts Michigan State, but not as much as the resulting 4-4 record. If the Spartans had won this game, it would not have saved the season, as I heard one Michigan commentator incorrectly say. If Michigan State had won this game, it would have prolonged the streak, and more importantly, put the Spartans back in the race for the Rose Bowl. It would have renewed the season, it wouldn't have saved it. MSU is well beyond past purgatories of betting all of its chips of happiness on this one game.
But now that a Rose Bowl season is out of reach, Michigan State must rally to avoid a no-bowl season.
Getting to a bowl game in 2012 would NOT make this season a success. It's already going to be a disappointment. These are also the new realities of the Dantonio era and the higher standard of expectations he has delivered.
But 2012 can still become a constructive campaign.
Michigan State did not reload in 2012, as we thought it might. The Spartans have had to pause for a year and rebuild. This team didn't turn out to be good enough to make it to Pasadena. But with 19 of 22 starters expected to return next year, buoyed by a continually strong defense, one gets the idea that this wasn't the era's last chance to make a run at the Rose Bowl. That's part of the reason why the Spartans were able to walk out of Michigan Stadium with such dignity. They know they'll be back.
Some of us thought the program had gotten to the point that the new, inexperienced starters would be just as good, skilled, poised, productive and consistent as their championship predecessors. But the dropped passes of September, the missed reads and errant throws of October, and the defense's late-inning blown saves against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan proved that the 2012 edition of Spartan football isn't of perennial power status.
Michigan State now must recoil into a mode of damage control. That means winning at least two more games, earning bowl eligibility and the December practices that come with it. If that sounds tired and meaningless then you need to get reacquainted with the big picture.
A young team - with a revolving hospital door at four of the five offensive line positions and a quarterback who still needs as many reps with his receivers and tight ends as possible - has a lot to lose if it doesn't get to six wins and a bowl game. December practices are also unique in that they offer a team a chance to regroup, work while school isn't in session, bond without the pressure of weekly games, and point toward a new common goal of a bowl victory. This would be a galvanizing time for this team.
We may have thought Michigan State was above these humble checkpoints. Well Michigan State isn't. The Spartans need to accept that reality and play these last four games for the continued construction of the program's ultimate goals and not just a sad means of playing out the string in 2012.
I don't get the sense that the Spartans are coming out of this game feeling as if their season is over and they have nothing left to play for. I don't think they're gutted, despondent and broken. They have plenty to chase, with three bowl teams remaining on the schedule. They can't make this season a success, but they can help the program progress. If they continue to hit like they did at Michigan, they'll get the wins they need to extend the season into December. That needs to be the focus right now. And it is an important one.
...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now for a FREE Trial