SOUTH BEND, Ind. — How long can a chip stay on one’s shoulder before it just becomes a shoulder?
Michigan State has made a habit — built a program — off the chip on Mark Dantonio’s shoulder. No matter how many wins the program racks up, no matter how many Big Ten titles have been won in recent seasons, no matter how many big-time bowl appearances are made, the Spartans always seem to find something to tick them off and something they have to prove.
And that’s a good thing for Dantonio & Co. because it always seems to work.
Big games are where Dantonio has best proved his impact, turning Michigan State from a run-of-the-mill Big Ten program to one of the conference’s best, one of the country’s best. The resume has been regurgitated so many times over it doesn’t demand another mention. But Dantonio can add something to it after Saturday night: a huge win over Notre Dame in South Bend.
After 2013’s loss here was the lone defeat of Michigan State’s season, a loss that perhaps kept the Spartans out of the national title game, this was perfect revenge. The Spartans, for the most part, looked strong on both sides of the ball. The script flipped over the last quarter, with 36 unanswered points by the Spartans finally answered with three consecutive Irish touchdown drives. But in the end, the result is what mattered and Dantonio got to put Notre Dame on his wall of accomplishments, along with last year’s wins over Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa and the Cotton Bowl win over Baylor and the Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
How do the Spartans keep showing up in these big-time games? Well, because people still keep doubting them — at least that’s what they think.
“We carry that blue-collar, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality. That’s what Coach D preaches,” quarterback Tyler O’Connor said after the game. “We were the higher-ranked team and still were the underdog. We kind of have that mentality regardless, whether we’re predicted to win or not, we come in with a chip on our shoulder, and we know we had to do that today.”
Michigan State playing the disrespect card might seem to be getting old. The Spartans talk about it ad nauseam. But there’s plenty of truth to it, to be fair. The reigning Big Ten champs entered this season ranked considerably beneath the Buckeyes and Wolverines in the East Division, two teams they beat last season. And even Saturday, the higher-ranked Spartans — a top-10 team in the coaches poll — were the underdogs at Notre Dame Stadium.
So did the Spartans have something to prove Saturday night? Maybe. There were certainly questions after the season’s lone game was a mere 15-point win over an FCS foe. But at the same time, those who have paid attention during the Dantonio Era knew exactly how his teams have played in these big-time games. And likely they weren’t surprised by what they saw Saturday.
That’s what makes the “something to prove” mindset induce its fair share of eye rolls.
But hey. It works.
“You’ve always got to prove something to yourself. You can’t stay stagnant. If you stay stagnant, nothing happens,” wide receiver RJ Shelton said. “We just come out and work every day. We have our goals, but we want to move toward those goals. You can’t just stay straight, you’ve got to go and push further than straight. We just came as one today, got the job done.”
We’ll see on Sunday whether this win vaults the Spartans up into the top of the top 25 with their division-mates, who are set to climb higher after the No. 2 team in the country lost. And we’ll see come November — depending on the month and a half of football to be played between now and then — how this win helps Michigan State’s case for a spot in the College Football Playoff. If Michigan State remains significantly behind Ohio State and Michigan — or any number of other teams from around the country — then that’s just more fodder for Dantonio to grow that chip on his players’ shoulders.
The truth is this: Michigan State is one of America’s best college football programs. This season, as it should now every season, it has national championship aspirations. And, like seemingly happens every season, many are — if not counting the Spartans out, at least unwilling to treat them like one of the Playoff’s main contenders.
So keep playing that disrespect card, Michigan State. If only because it seems to work so very, very well.
“You know when your time comes that you’ve got to step up for this program and step up for this team because we want this team to get to the Big Ten championship, to win the East, to go to the national championship because this team deserves that. So guys are hungry for that,” Shelton said. “The guys previous to me … the guys who carried this team to where it went — the Cotton Bowls, the Rose Bowls — you pride yourself in doing the same. It trickles down in our room, and it tricks down in every room because they built the foundation for this program. And this team needs to be a top-10 team.”