Spartans’ Dantonio squares off with ex-boss Saban

Spartans’ Dantonio squares off with ex-boss Saban

If the College Football Playoff committee was going for storylines, they nailed it with No. 3 Michigan State’s matchup against No. 2 Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

The teams have played just once — a blowout win for the Crimson Tide in the 2011 Capital One Bowl — but that is just scratching the surface. Where the real intrigue lies is at the top of each program.

Coach Mark Dantonio turned the Spartans into the national power that has won 11 games in five of the last six seasons, beaten seven top-10 teams in eight tries and has finished in the top five in the nation two consecutive years. Now Michigan State finds itself playing for a shot at a national championship.

Alabama’s Nick Saban has been to the mountain top — multiple times. He won the national title at LSU in 2003 and has three championships with Alabama, winning in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Of course, before Saban became the king of the college coaching world, he was the head coach at Michigan State from 1995-99. His defensive backs coach was Dantonio. When Saban bolted for LSU in late November 1999, Dantonio stuck around for another season under Bobby Williams before taking the defensive coordinator job at Ohio State.

More than 15 years after they last worked together, there is still a healthy respect between the two coaches.

“I learned a tremendous amount of football (under Saban): organization, preparation,” Dantonio said. “My mindset as a football coach has been shaped by the people I’ve worked for. Certainly Jim Tressel I’ve talked about a lot, but Nick Saban is probably the guy, too, that from a defensive system certainly, and then also from just an overall football system.

“It was difficult. There were challenges, but I think my relationship with Coach Saban is excellent. He’s truly a mentor of mine.”

That mentor was watching when Michigan State went 22 plays to score the winning touchdown against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game Saturday. Saban and the Tide took care of Florida earlier in the day in the Southeastern Conference championship game and were watching what amounted to a play-in game for the last playoff spot.

Saban was pulling for his former protege.

“Mark has done a fabulous job,” Saban said, “and I got to see that 22-play drive, and it was pretty awesome. I was rooting for the Spartans after being there for 10 years myself and rooting for my former assistant Mark. Glad they came out on top.”

When the teams square off at the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31, it will be a clash of similar styles. Much of that might come from the fact Saban and Dantonio have familiar philosophies and winning formulas.

The Spartans and Crimson Tide are physical running teams. Both defenses are aggressive and strong at the point of attack, and they rank among the nation’s best in defending the run.

If Alabama comes out on top, it will end a two-game bowl skid for a team that has won three national titles under Saban. If it is Michigan State, it would mean Dantonio took Michigan State farther than Saban ever did.

“Mark has exceeded expectations of all of us in terms of what he’s done at Michigan State,” Saban said, “and certainly done a better job than I ever did there.”

NOTES

–QB Connor Cook was far from 100 percent in Michigan State’s victory over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. His injured right shoulder kept him from getting much velocity on his passes, leading to a 16-for-32 performance that included an interception. The fifth-year senior was gritty, however, and he ran for a fourth-down conversion on the game-winning drive. He will need his arm strength back if the Spartans expect to knock off Alabama. The time off should do wonders, but only time will tell if Cook regains the form he had early in the season.

–RB LJ Scott has been in and out of the running back rotation all season, not all that out of the ordinary for a true freshman, but he was at his best during Michigan State’s winning drive against Iowa, carrying the ball 14 times and scoring the winning touchdown from a yard out. He and the entire running game will be tested against Alabama, but if Scott can provide the same sort of spark he did in the Big Ten title game, it would be huge for the Michigan State offense.

–DE Shilique Calhoun was named first-team All-Big Ten for the third consecutive season. In the conference championship game, he was a menace, recording three tackles for loss, including a pair of sacks, and forcing a fumble. The Hawkeyes simply couldn’t block the fifth-year senior, and he will be a big focus for the Crimson Tide. They will try to run away from him, but Calhoun looks determined to go out on top in his final season with the Spartans.

–WR Aaron Burbridge was selected the Big Ten’s top wide receiver for a reason, and he showed it when it counted most in the victory over Iowa. The senior had a huge third-down grab in the fourth quarter and had several big runs out of the Wildcat formation. His 80 catches this season for 1,219 yards and seven touchdowns represent one of the best season in Michigan State history. He will be a focus of the Alabama defense. If he and Cook can get rolling together, it might be too much for the Crimson Tide to contain.

BOWL HISTORY: Michigan State is 11-14 in bowl games and has a school-record four-game winning streak, picking up victories in the 2012 Outback Bowl, the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, the 2014 Rose Bowl and the 2015 Cotton Bowl.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve got exactly the opportunity that we’ve worked so hard for since last February, and we’re going to see if we measure up. Alabama has certainly had a football team that’s been in that situation before, so they know what to expect. We’re sort of new on the scene in that type of thing.” — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.