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Football: Dantonio prepares to face Irish for first time

Chris Hine | Friday, September 21, 2007

Mark Dantonio may be in his first year as Michigan State’s coach, but he is well acquainted with the rivalry between Notre Dame and the Spartans.

Dantonio spent six years as an assistant for Michigan State from 1995-2000, and knows anything can happen when the two teams battle, regardless of their records entering the game.

“[Notre Dame has] excellent coaching, they have tradition,” Dantonio said. “They’re backed into a corner a little bit. They have a rivalry with us, they played us last year here and you guys know the score on that one. And so it’s a traditional rival. Any time you have a rival game, we need to be prepared.”

Dantonio, who coached Cincinnati for the past three seasons, replaced John Smith, who led the Spartans during their 44-41 win at Notre Dame in 2005 and their 40-37 loss to Notre Dame in 2006 at Spartan Stadium.

Last season’s loss devastated the Spartan faithful. Michigan State led by 17 at halftime but could not hold off the surging Irish in a driving rainstorm. The loss spelled the end for Smith, who was let go at the end of the season, and left the Michigan State program in disarray.

Dantonio said Saturday is a big step in bringing the program back to national prominence.

“But a lot of that I think rests with, as I said before, we need to continue to win the respect back of our fan base and the people,” Dantonio said. “And that is an ongoing thing. … Our reputation is not built as of yet. We need to continue to do that. So we need to constantly remind ourselves of that. Stay grounded and understand what we have to accomplish. It’s long term, though.”

Last Saturday, the Spartans defeated Pittsburgh 17-13 to improve to 3-0 this season, but, Dantonio said, his team must improve if it wants to stay undefeated.

“From my perspective, … we could have played better on Saturday. And we played a pretty good Pitt team. They played very square,” Dantonio said. “You have to give Pitt a lot of credit. They had been working on that formation and those play scenarios since last spring from what I understand. They had not shown any in the prior two [games]. You know, they played very well defensively. Pitt’s a much improved football team. But if you look at the game, we were our worst enemy at times. And my message to our team will always be about us, how we play. So we’ll be prepared.”

After leaving Michigan State in 2000, Dantonio became the defensive coordinator at Ohio State and won a national title in 2002. Dantonio’s defenses at Ohio State performed well – the Buckeyes ranked second in the nation in scoring defense in 2002 and were tenth overall in 2003.

In 2004, Dantonio took over Cincinnati’s program. He led the Bearcats to a 30-11 upset victory over then-No. 7 Rutgers last season. Cincinnati’s defense ranked 27th in the nation in rushing last season, and the Bearcats finished 7-5.

Dantonio’s reputation as a solid defensive coach will be on the line against a sputtering Irish offense. The Spartans have allowed 88.7 rushing yards per game and 198 through the air. Notre Dame has averaged negative -4.7 yards rushing and 119.7 passing. But unlike Smith, Dantonio is reserved when he talks about Notre Dame.

He is preparing his team for the Notre Dame of old, even though Notre Dame lost to Georgia Tech 33-3 at home to open the season and has dropped its last five home games against Michigan State. Despite Notre Dame’s struggles, Dantonio said his team can’t underestimate the Irish – especially since the game is at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I think without question [Notre Dame] plays a home game where they were not successful, go away and play in two difficult environments. Now they get an opportunity to come back home,” Dantonio said. “And it’s always more special when you’re playing at home. It’s very difficult to win away games. … But I expect Notre Dame to be emotional. I expect them to be … well prepared and eager to play.”