Nov. 1, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - From a Michigan State football player's first step on campus to the last whistle he hears in his last game, one concept is emphasized more than any other.
When the Spartans were asked what went wrong in losses to Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa, their universal reply was they failed to finish plays on offense, defense and special teams that would have won those games.
And when pressed to explain why MSU has been so successful in November during Mark Dantonio's first five seasons as head coach, they point to his philosophy of finishing.
Nothing illustrates the Spartans' turnaround under Dantonio better than their record in the 11th month of the year.
Michigan State went 3-14 in the five Novembers prior to Dantonio's arrival and are 13-3 since. The late surges have been crucial to qualifying for five consecutive bowl appearances, one Big Ten Championship, one Legends Division title and a trip to the inaugural conference final in Indianapolis.
"We always seem to do well in the month of November because everything we do is pretty much focused on finishing, whether that's the off-season conditioning, spring ball, summer workouts or whatever it is we're doing, and even in the practice like we had today," said senior linebacker Chris Norman, who's completing his fourth year in the system. "I think that whole mind-set, that attitude, really carries over to how we want to close out the season.
"We want to finish strong just like we try to do with everything else in the program. It's almost as if we don't have a choice but to finish strong because that what the coaches constantly preach to us."
At 5-4 (2-3 Big Ten), there's still a lot of work to be done by the choir in the final month in terms of becoming bowl-eligible and having a say on the final Legends Division standings.
However, the Spartans will be riding a seven-game November win streak into Saturday's game against Legends-leading Nebraska (6-2, 3-1). Michigan State hasn't lost a game in the final month of the regular season since falling against Penn State, 42-14, on Nov. 21, 2009.
Contrast that performance with the way MSU finished from 2004-06 when it lost seven in a row in November and eight straight including the Dec. 4, 2004, regular-season finale at Hawaii.
The indoctrination to finishing what they start begins in strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie's weight room.
"He always says, `Start fast, finish strong,' " said junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "It's a habit we form in workouts, practice, and games. It's only natural when a season comes down to the end, you're used to finishing everything else strong so you have no choice but to finish strong."
Danotnio has had losing monthly records in only three MSU regular seasons - he was1-3 in October 2007, 0-1 in August 2008 and 1-3 in September 2009 - and never in November when he's been 2-1 three times, 3-0 and 4-0.
Defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett has been a party to Dantonio's habit-forming ways since joining his first staff as a head coach at Cincinnati in 2004. Barnett and Dantonio have been eight games (18-8) over .500 in November ever since.
"We talk about it at the very beginning with the Fourth Quarter Program in the wintertime," said Barnett. "All you hear is, `Finish, finish, finish.' "
The Spartans stress "finish" so much, it's a wonder they don't speak with Scandinavian accents.
"We even break it up," Barnett said. "In the last month of the season, you've got to be able to finish. Guys are banged up all across the country in all levels of football, but can you keep pushing through it and have the right mental makeup to be able to finish a game and a season?"
"Guys have bought into it, they understand it and it means something to them."
The coaches, support staff and players employ various tactics to mitigate factors - such as pain, drudgery and fatigue - that could cause the Spartans to fall victim to the "woe-is-me's" and from peaking at the crucial time.
"Coach D. really puts a huge emphasis on football being a game of emotion and throughout the week we'll do some things to spark that, whether that's a movie, someone coming in to give us a talk, us doing a chant or something like that before the game," Norman said. "There are parts during the season when you get a little weary of football, but emotion can really overcome that and he does everything he can to make sure we're up and ready for the game."
To commemorate Halloween, for example, defensive tackle Tyler Hoover made for a startling sight in the Skandalaris Football Center because he encased his 6-foot-7, 310-pound body in a green, skintight body suit, and defensive end William Gholston roamed the halls dressed in a Batman costume.
Then the team was treated to a highlight video of Michael Myers, the ghoul in the "Halloween" series of slasher movies, before going out to practice.
"It was pretty funny, and then somebody came out dressed up like Mike Myers with a chainsaw and everything and it really got the guys going," Norman said. "I know Coach D is going to come up with something else throughout the week."
In the ultra-serious world of college football, the 18-to-22-year-old combatants appreciate the times they can un-focus their minds and keep things fresh.
"You want to have fun when you play a game," Norman said. "The kind of fun that you had when you were a little kid is the same kind of fun you want to have in the business-like atmosphere college football is. Coach D does a really good job of making that the case."
Norman said the benefits of MSU's approach are reflected in the results. The defense has been having a ball all season. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in yards and points allowed and are fifth nationally in total defense.
And that offense, which faltered at crucial times earlier in the season, finished the 75-yard, 12-play drive that sent last Saturday's game at Wisconsin into overtime and then finished off the Badgers in the first extra period. Maxwell completed 9-of-11 passes for 81 yards, including a 5-yard scoring toss to running back Le'Veon Bell and a 12-yarder to wideout Bennie Fowler, during MSU's decisive final two possessions.
"Slowly but surely, the offense has been making more plays here and making more plays there and the more they make, the more confident they'll become," Norman said. "And when you become more confident, you make more plays.
"I'm really excited about the progress they've been making and I'm pretty sure they're going to continue to do it and become a really good offense for us in November."
It wouldn't come as a surprise because that's typically when the Spartans have done some of their best work.