The ball sailed up through the clear autumn air.
Spartan Stadium held its breath.
The sun-drenched fans, sweaty from an abnormally warm fall day, felt a chill run up and down their collective spine.
The two referees under the goalposts both threw their hands straight into the air, setting off pandemonium. Their gesture was mimicked by most of the 65,000 fans as their Spartans tasted victory for the seventh time this year.
On the sidelines, Mark Dantonio celebrated with his team. This victory, perhaps even more than the one against the hated Wolverines of Michigan the previous week, was tangible evidence of his arrival, evidence that Dantonio had, as so many before him had failed to do, changed the Michigan State University football program for the better.
Whispers of the change started a few weeks before this game. The Spartans, after dropping their first game to the California Golden Bears, had reeled off five straight victories. None had been against premier teams, but, by winning games with an opportunistic defense and a workhorse running back in Javon Ringer, they had shown toughness, resiliency and consistency previously absent from Spartan football.
Even after being emphatically humbled by highly ranked Ohio State 45-7 at home following the five wins, the team went into the Big House, home of their most prominent rivals, and handed the Wolverines a 35-21 loss in a sloppy but passionate game. This victory, the defining one of the Spartans season no matter how the rest of it plays out, was followed by the thrilling, last second defeat of Wisconsin.
Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing three years ago preaching hardnosed, smashmouth, and mistake-free football. He was successor to a coach, John L. Smith, who had tried without much success to install a high-flying spread offense before being driven out of town.
Dantonio wanted to do just the opposite and, in more ways than one, redefine Spartan football. His inaugural year was rough, as was his second season; his team played the type of football its fans had come to expect. They would show promise early in the season, only to collapse in the second half. The team was mistake-prone, and prone as well to blowing leads, wasting opportunities, and otherwise shooting themselves in the foot.
Dantonio remained calm and collected though, he didn’t erupt after particularly irksome losses, as many coaches, including Smith, do when faced with similar frustrations, he simply kept preaching his virtues. At some point, his attitude and message started rubbing off on his team.
He was rewarded this year as it finally began displaying the qualities he desired, winning games with an offense powered by a running back who, despite standing only 5’9”- not large as running backs go- can bench press over 400 pounds and squat 600, both of which compare with the 300 pound behemoths that block for and pursue him on the offensive and defensive lines. Javon Ringer quickly showed that he embodied the toughness and heart that his coach desired as he indeed powered- there is no other word to adequately describe his work- his team to the 7-2 record they currently posses. As the Spartans and Ringer, whose name quickly began to frequent discussions involving the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious individual award, their fans began to wonder if the change they have been deprived of for so long may finally have arrived.
If the Spartans can defeat lowly Purdue next Saturday, then that hope is well founded, at least for this year.
A victory over the Boilermakers would leave the Spartans in a showdown with an elite Penn State team the following week for the Big Ten championship, a situation few people thought the Spartans would be in. Even a loss to the currently third ranked Nitanny Lions, and a 9-3 record would most likely land the Spartans in a new year’s day bowl game and result in a very satisfying season for MSU and its fans.
Of course, this is all assuming the Spartans take care of business against Purdue but that, thanks largely to Mark Dantonio, would be a shocker.