INDIANAPOLIS -- We can now add something to the list of Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s many talents: He’s a proven fortune teller.
Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis is familiar with this trait. With about two minutes left in Saturday’s 16-13 win over Iowa in the Big Ten title game, in the middle of an already-legendary 22-play, game-winning drive, Hollis said Dantonio gave him a knowing glance.
“I’m like, ‘OK, we’re good,’” Hollis said. “And unbelievably, we went down and scored.”
Dantonio has presaged his team’s events before. At the team banquet following the 2012 season, he told his returning players that “you will be the ones” who lead the program to a championship. He doubled down on that prediction by filming a message to his team from the Rose Bowl that summer. His mantra of “find the inches” turned out to be prophetic as Michigan State beat Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl with a late, fourth-down stop.
This year, Dantonio preached to his team about reaching the next level, which obviously meant the College Football Playoff. His slogan for 2015 is “Reach Higher,” which worked out neatly when running back LJ Scott reached the ball over the goal line against Iowa in the final minute to clinch a playoff spot. (OK, so “Reach Farther” would have been more accurate, but Dantonio still was pretty close.)
“Stuff like that …” center Jack Allen said, shaking his head. “When Coach D says something at the beginning of the year, it happens.”
Clearly, Dantonio is not actually a soothsayer. But with the way Michigan State’s season has gone, it leaves you looking to perhaps some supernatural causes.
There was the break -- literally -- early on when Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams entered the Week 2 game in Spartan Stadium with a broken finger. There was Rutgers inexplicably spiking the ball on fourth down. Of course, there was the miracle in the Big House. There was the win (and windmill) at Ohio State without Connor Cook, when even the weather accumulated in Michigan State’s favor. And lastly, there was that 22-play drive for the team’s only touchdown against Iowa after 59 minutes of end zone blockage.
Even the Spartans’ only loss came in bizarre fashion, when Nebraska won on a late touchdown pass after a receiver stepped out of bounds. Yet Michigan State players and coaches say that loss was necessary and fruitful.
“A lot of crazy things happened this year,” Allen said. “Things have happened to us that I don’t think happen for other teams.”
A few players and coaches on Saturday night talked about faith and religion as reasons this team has prevailed in so many strange circumstances. That may sound dubious to some, but when weird things happen, explanations from above are often sought. The "D" word -- destiny -- was thrown around a lot, too.
“A team of destiny?” Hollis said. “Maybe. We have so many special kids on this team. You just embrace them every time there's a situation like this.”
Maybe there's a simpler explanation. Maybe it’s just a talented, experienced group of players -- some of whom were redshirting when Michigan State went to the Big Ten championship game in 2011 -- who have won a Rose and a Cotton bowl and have a school-record 43 victories the past four years.
“Our football team knows how to win,” Dantonio said. “We can play it out. We don't count ourselves out. Things aren't going so well, we keep playing. … There’s a belief system.”
The Spartans will enter the playoff as underdogs to Alabama -- the Vegas line opened with Bama as a nine-point favorite. That’s a role Michigan State relishes. And the Spartans will not be intimidated by the setting or the stage, which coincidentally is the same field (AT&T Stadium) where it beat Baylor last year in the Cotton Bowl.
“We feel like we have the experience to go and play our game,” defensive back Demetrious Cox said. “Do what we do.”
Finding the inches. Reach higher. Pound green pound. All of those sayings coming full circle for the Spartans as they clinched a spot in the playoff had to mean something, right?
Now the Spartans will try to craft some more crazy, wonderful, beneficial endings in the playoff. They may feel like it’s preordained -- by Dantonio or some other force.
“We have a special group of guys,” fullback Trevon Pendleton said. “What we have is something I personally don’t feel is matched anywhere else.”