Mark Dantonio is ready for Notre Dame. With just one game under his belt and six weeks of practicing since opening training camp, he’s ready to measure his Spartans against an opponent he hasn’t faced since 2013.
Even with a gap in the rivalry, there’s familiarity. Whether it be the common path the coaches took or the geographical connection that comes with sharing a border and a recruiting base, Dantonio knows Notre Dame as well as the Irish know Michigan State.
And that should make for an interesting weekend for the Spartans head coach, as he sees how ready his young team is for a big challenge.
“I think we have to learn a lot about our football team. I don’t think there is any question about that. We’ve only played one game,” Dantonio said. “We’ve been working for six weeks, one game. You don’t know a lot about it.
“You know there is going to be growth. You have some people that are going to fail, some people are going to be successful in this game. I mean, that’s the nature of it. That’s what football is.”
The Spartans have failed three-straight times against the Irish, their last victory courtesy of the Little Giants fake field goal game-winner in 2010. And while Irish fans remember very clearly a play clock that had struck zero, Michigan State faithful remember the unfriendly penalty flags that helped buoy an Irish offense in 2013, when the Spartans defensive backs were called early and often as Tommy Rees tried to attack Michigan State downfield.
It took Dantonio a split-second to recall that game and Notre Dame’s game plan of throwing the ball vertically. Twenty times, per Dantonio’s count.
“From my perspective, we made plays. You know, flags came out a little bit, but from my perspective, we made plays on the ball,” Dantonio said, ten total flags and four pass interference calls not withstanding. “Sometimes those are bang-bang type situations… But at the same time, regardless of what happens, you need to move on and play the next play. I think that’s the most important thing.
“I think we did do a good job of that. We held them to 17 points, I think it was 17. That was a positive. So we need to continue to play like we do. We need to be who we are, too. We can’t let somebody take us out of who we are.”
The Spartans identity under Dantonio is well established. The players asked to step into those defining roles are still to be determined.
Because both programs are at different stages than where they were in 2013. And a year after earning an invite to the College Football Playoff, Dantonio’s program will face their first challenge of the season.
“I think we have a good football team. I think we’ve got players,” Dantonio said. “We’re looking forward to this opportunity.”