COLUMBUS – Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio seems careful, controlled, maybe a little humorless and like someone who has never, ever been called a wild man.
But sometimes when he’s calling plays, he does a 180-degree turn from his public image and shakes things up with a trick play.
Maybe no coach in the Big Ten has called more trick plays. Or, at least, nobody has used more in big situations.
The most famous of these deceptions came when the Spartans faked a game-tying field goal in overtime against Notre Dame in 2010 and holder Aaron Bates threw a touchdown pass to beat the Irish 34-31.
Three weeks ago, Dantonio faked a field goal at Nebraska’s 27-yard line with a 6-point lead and punter Mike Sadler ran for a first down.
In October, on fourth-and-seven at Michigan State’s 37-yard line with a 6-point lead over Iowa, Sadler ran for 25 yards.
ESPN’s cameras caught Dantonio fist bumping his daughter Kristen on the sidelines after the call against Iowa.
At his weekly press conference the next week, Dantonio explained that she had told him earlier in the game, “Don’t forget the trickery,” and he replied, “It’s coming.”
That this much trickery would come from a former defensive coordinator goes against the conventional wisdom that they are usually risk averse.
But Dantonio protests that he doesn’t take that many calculated risks. He’s not setting off the pyrotechnics just to watch them blow up.
While Dantonio might have 10 or 12 trick plays in reserve for some games, he points out that the two fakes against Iowa and Nebraska are the only ones he has called this season, and he used only one gimmick play in 2012.
The trick plays stand out because Michigan State, like its coach, is pretty far removed from glitz and glamour.
No. 10 Michigan State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) has won 11 games three of the last four seasons and is averaging nine wins a season since Dantonio arrived in 2007.
From the outside, though, the perception is still that the Spartans are in the shadow of the big boys in their neighborhood — Michigan (who they have beaten five of the last six years), Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Also, they have not played in one of the BCS bowls.
Knocking off No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game would be another step by the Spartans toward confirming they are an elite program.
Michigan State thinks it can match up with anyone but that this is not always recognized outside the MSU program.
At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Dantonio said a Michigan State win against Ohio State “would send a message throughout the country right now.”
“I think we’re sending that message. We’re doing all we can to send the message in terms of how we play on the field,” he said. “Sometimes we’ve got to scratch and claw a little bit more than others, but that’s the nature of it. We have to earn ourselves into that opportunity to be thought of with that kind of prominence year in and year out.”
A hardnosed defense and an improving offense are what Michigan State thinks could accomplish that.
And if it takes a trick play or two, they can do that, too.