Despite playing in different conferences and different parts of the country, No. 4 Michigan State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) and No. 5 Stanford (11-2, 7-2 Pac-12) have a striking number of similarities. Like Stanford last year, Michigan State finally accomplished its long-standing goal of securing a berth in the Rose Bowl.
“Thrilled to be going to the Rose Bowl, it’s a goal we set when we came here,” said Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio in a Sunday press conference. “I can’t tell you how many times at 5:30 in the morning, or 6:30 in the morning or 10 at night, whatever we were working out throughout the times – day in and day out, winter workout, summer practices, spring ball – that we would not put our hands into a group of people, about 120 people, and on the count of one, say Big Ten champions. And to be able to do that and see that dream come to fruition is something that you can carry for rest of your life.”
Dantonio started at Michigan State in 2007 after stints as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and the head coach at Cincinnati. This year marks Michigan State’s first BCS bowl appearance under Dantonio and its first appearance in the Rose Bowl since 1988. Dantonio took over a program coming off of a 4-8 season and transformed it into a consistent contender in the Big Ten, posting three 11-win seasons in the last four years. Like the Cardinal’s turnaround under former head coach Jim Harbaugh and current head coach David Shaw, the Spartans experienced very little success in the 2000s until Dantonio arrived.
“We had three goals this year,” Dantonio continued. “One was to get to the [Big Ten] Championship Game, the next was to win it and the third was to finish our season, and win our bowl game, regardless of where we played.”
Despite the recent success, the team still feels like it hasn’t received the national recognition it deserves. The last time it won a Big Ten title (a three-way tie in 2010), Michigan State was annihilated by a three-loss Alabama team in the Capital One Bowl, 49-7. Although the Spartans had a successful season that year, a lot of it was lost in the disappointment of the bowl defeat.
“As good of season we had in 2010, we didn’t play well versus Alabama,” Dantonio said. “So nobody ever put that game up there. Even though we were an 11-1 football team, nobody ever put that season up there. I guess it was a great 11-win season, but there was always an asterisk there.”
After upsetting a previously unbeaten Ohio State team that was presumably one win away from a spot in the national championship, Michigan State will certainly be motivated to validate its status as a national power. To do so, the Spartans must defeat a similarly-built Stanford team. Both programs boast elite defensive units (the Spartans rank fourth nationally in scoring defense), strive for strong academics and pride themselves on “doing things the right way.”
“I think Coach Shaw is an outstanding person,” Dantonio said. “And probably a lot of similarities in the way, from what I understand, that their program is run. Hopefully we’re doing it the right way, but I got to know him a little bit last year on the Nike trip, and just a solid person, great person. I hear tremendous things about him as an individual.”
While working as a graduate assistant at Purdue in 1981, Dantonio also worked with current Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Hart, who soon left for Ohio State, helped Dantonio into a position with the Buckeyes as well.
“Randy [Hart] is probably one of the five or six people that when I look back at my coaching career, when I didn’t have an opportunity, he made it happen for me to go to Ohio State as a graduate assistant,” Dantonio said. “[He] sort of made that opportunity happen for me…I constantly hear from Randy over the years – great person, great coach.”
The Stanford and Michigan State similarities only continue when examining the two teams’ offenses. Led by junior running back Jeremy Langford, the Spartans excel in the running game behind a bruising offensive line. Langford has rushed for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns this season thanks in large part to stellar offensive line play.
“[Former offensive coordinator Dan] Roushar always wanted us to watch Stanford’s offensive line because they always play tough,” said senior guard Blake Treadwell. “That’s how he wanted us to play eventually – nasty football. One thing we know about Stanford is [they’re a] tough, physical team.”
Stanford and Michigan State will match up in what is sure to be a physical game on Jan.1, 2014, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.