Mark Dantonio appreciates MSU's journey

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into an annual Big Ten title contender, but he's urging his team to "reach higher." AJ Mast/Icon Sportswire

It was a routine interaction between head coach and player that made Mark Dantonio pause and reflect. Head coaches rarely do either.

They're too consumed with the present or the future to consider the past. But that's exactly what Dantonio did when he greeted offensive lineman Dennis Finley in the hallway of Michigan State's Skandalaris Football Center during preseason camp last month. After redshirting in 2013, Finley now backs up All-America candidate Jack Conklin at left tackle.

"I talked to him for a second, walked up the hall a few steps and thought, ‘How far has Dennis come since he’s gotten here?'" Dantonio recently told ESPN.com. "And I took another step and thought, ‘How far have I come? How far has this program come?’"

Here's how far: When Dantonio arrived in December 2006, Michigan State hadn't earned even a piece of the Big Ten title since 1990 (its last outright title: 1987). It hadn't won a Rose Bowl since 1988. It hadn't started a season ranked in the Top 10 since 1979. It hadn't finished in the top 5 since 1966.

All of those things have happened during Dantonio's tenure at Michigan State, which is enjoying its greatest stretch of success since the Duffy Daughterty teams of the mid-1960s. After a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl wins the past two years, Michigan State is targeting the logical, only, next step: the College Football Playoff and a shot at a national title. The first truly significant game of the 2015 playoff chase takes place Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, as No. 5 Michigan State hosts No. 7 Oregon, last year's national runner-up.

It's the first matchup of AP top 10 teams in Spartan Stadium since the 1966 "Game of the Century" between No. 2 Michigan State and No. 1 Notre Dame, which ended in a 10-10 tie. Michigan State is favored, putting Oregon in the underdog role during the regular season for the first time since 2011.

"Big football games have occurred here in the past," Dantonio said Tuesday. "I guess this is one of the biggest ones."

Two days after the Finley interaction caused him to reflect, Dantonio posed the same question to his team.

"Two years ago, here’s [quarterback] Connor Cook sitting there, you had a three-man quarterback battle -- actually four if you threw out Damian Terry -- and he becomes the MVP in the Rose Bowl and now where’s he at?" Dantonio said. "This journey that our players and our program has been on is one a little bit of reflection.

"We’ve got to reflect a little bit and understand what got us to that, and why, and try to hold onto those things."

It's easy for most of Dantonio's assistants, who have been with him since his arrival at MSU. They went 22-17 in their first three seasons, beating rivals Michigan and Notre Dame but never truly reaching the national radar.

Since 2011, Michigan State is 54-14 with four seasons of 11 or more wins, a Big Ten championship and three top-10 finishes. The defense has gained widespread respect, becoming the only unit to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense in each of the past four seasons. Dantonio has developed elite running backs like Javon Ringer, Le'Veon Bell and Jeremy Langford. Michigan State also is becoming a producer of NFL quarterbacks, from Brian Hoyer to Kirk Cousins and, soon, Cook.

Most coaches preach the importance of continuity, but Dantonio has practiced it with his staff. He has had two coordinators leave for head-coaching positions (Don Treadwell and Pat Narduzzi) and another leave for an NFL position (Dan Roushar). Each time, he has filled the position by promoting from within.

"Every member of this staff wants to stay here," said Mike Tressel, promoted to co-defensive coordinator with Harlon Barnett after Narduzzi's departure to Pittsburgh. "I'm sure there's places where FootballScoop.com is the No. 1 website in the football office. We know Coach Dantonio has our best interest at heart. One of his goals is to have each one of us grow. He was just talking about that, he was driving in and he said, 'I started thinking about each of you guys and how far you've come.'"

Dantonio is big on succinct but significant mantras. The one for the 2015 Spartans? Reach higher.

After consecutive top 5 finishes, the only place for Michigan State to reach is a playoff spot and a chance to win its first national title in 49 years. The odd part for those who have been part of the program's ascent is that talking openly about titles ... isn't odd.

"It's sort of like your own child," Tressel said. "You don't see the growth as much as someone who hasn't seen them for a year. They walk in and go, 'Wow! Your son's grown.' You're like, 'Well, I guess he has.'

"We've been chipping away, and we continue to reach higher."