EAST LANSING — Nearly 13 minutes into a press conference three days after one of the most disastrous losses of his tenure as Michigan State’s coach and four days before a game that could put an exclamation mark on a season from hell, Mark Dantonio was asked about Larry Caper.
On the 10-year anniversary of Caper’s overtime run against Michigan, it was fitting. The picture of Caper bouncing off defenders and into the end zone, the 1-3 Spartans knocking off the undefeated Wolverines, beating them in consecutive years for the first time since 1967, still sets a tone for this rivalry. It’s cast as a turning point, and with good reason — including that streak, Michigan has beaten Michigan State all of three times since 2008.
Dantonio spent a minute recalling details of the game, the Spartans blowing a 14-point lead, then recapturing it on with Caper’s run. Then Dantonio said this: “I think it’s good to have a little bit of history, but you gotta focus on the moment.”
That takes us to the next question. One about Dantonio’s future. One that brought the room rushing towards the present, where Dantonio’s Spartans are 4-5 just one year after they were 7-6 and three years after they were 3-9. Where they blew a 25-point first-half lead at home to Illinois last week, and where Dantonio’s hands moved to his pockets and his lips pursed as a reporter probed at whether he will still be in East Lansing next year.
He told a story about meeting with Michigan State’s freshmen on Monday. One of them asked how he handled the criticism that comes with his position.
“Hey, when you’re the head of the program, you’re the head of something big. And things don’t go as well, that person’s gonna be criticized,” Dantonio recalled saying. “And that’s part of it.
“But what people need to understand out there is, I had as much information as I can to do the job that I’m doing and I’m gonna try to do it with your players in mind. We’re gonna work hard, we’re gonna always stay positive, we’re gonna rise above it. And that’s the only thing that I can do. I can continue to rise above it or I can take another direction and start to go below that. And I’m not gonna go that direction.”
This matters because Dantonio is about to lead his team into the biggest game of its season. And, perhaps more than any other point in his 13-year tenure as Michigan State’s coach, the Spartans’ season is tied into the result.
It would be hyperbolic and uninformed to say Dantonio’s job rides on Saturday’s outcome. But with his program stumbling on and off the field, with another headache on Tuesday when Dantonio said quarterback Brian Lewerke didn’t go through any concussion protocol before coming back into Saturday’s game after taking a hit to the head and with a $4.3 million retention bonus in Dantonio’s contract set to trigger in mid-January, it’s not unfair to say a win over Michigan — a reminder of what Dantonio brought to Michigan State — would go a long way.
The Wolverines have a considerable talent advantage over the Spartans. The game is in Ann Arbor. Michigan opened as a 12-point favorite, and it feels like there is as much built-in expectation that it should win this game as ever.
None of that stopped the usual platitudes from being uttered about the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry on Tuesday underneath Spartan Stadium. They sounded just the same as in Schembechler Hall on Monday.
But, standing in contrast to a Michigan program that wants to at least cloak this week under the veil of normalcy, there was little masking how much this game means.
“I think everyone (puts more into this game),” Lewerke said. “Top to bottom. Coaches, players, the training staff, everyone. They’re trying to be something a little bit better and play a little bit better.”
“I knew that if we were gonna be successful here, ultimately, that we were gonna have to win down the road (in Ann Arbor) some, and here at home, and we were gonna have to measure up in every time we played that football game,” Dantonio said. “And so that’s what we put into effect. That we were gonna measure up in this football game.”
The need to measure up against Michigan has as much to do with Michigan State’s ethos, one that existed long before Dantonio and will exist long after, as it does with the program’s current situation. On Tuesday, the notion that this year’s game should be treated with more urgency because of the Spartans’ lackluster record was thrown out.
“This is one that, again, we need to measure up on and then we gotta let this one go,” Dantonio said. “And I’ve always tried to say, OK, what do we do after Michigan?”
Without an upset of the same variety Dantonio has pulled off before, though, he may not be the only one person around Michigan State asking that question after Saturday.