Despite Michigan State's rough season both on and off the field in 2009, coach Mark Dantonio thought he had a special squad in February.
He turned out to be right.
The Spartans recorded a series of milestones this fall, and they did so in dramatic fashion. Unranked entering the season, Michigan State won a team-record 11 games and captured a share of its first Big Ten championship since 1990. The Spartans handed Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin its only loss, recorded their first three-game win streak against archrival Michigan since 1965-67 and won at Penn State for the first time since Joe Paterno became Nittany Lions coach.
The terms "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap" entered Michigan State's football lore as the Spartans beat Notre Dame in overtime with a fake field goal that went for a touchdown and rallied against Northwestern in the fourth quarter following a fake punt pass into the wind. A program that had wilted under adversity in past seasons also overcame the stunning news that Dantonio had suffered a mild heart attack after the Notre Dame win. The coach missed two games and didn't return to the sideline for more than a month, but the Spartans kept on winning.
Although a very bad afternoon in Iowa prevented Michigan State from perfection -- and, as it turned out, a BCS bowl -- the Spartans rebounded with a perfect November to secure a piece of the Big Ten crown.
Offensive MVP: Kirk Cousins. The junior took his game to the next level this fall, making big plays in clutch situations and showing his toughness by playing through pain. Cousins passed for 2,705 yards with 20 touchdown strikes and nine interceptions and ranked 19th nationally in quarterback rating (153.5). He played the second half of the season with a sprained shoulder and a sprained ankle but continued to help the team. Sophomore running back Edwin Baker merits a mention here.
Defensive MVP: Greg Jones. Yep, him again. Jones capped off his stellar career with a very strong senior season. He led Michigan State in tackles (98) for the fourth consecutive season and added three forced fumbles, three quarterback hurries, eight tackles for loss, a sack and the first two interceptions of his career. Jones once again got plenty of help from fellow linebacker Eric Gordon, and all four of Michigan State's starting defensive backs stepped up in big ways.
Turning point: It's hard to find just one with this team, but no one will forget the night of Sept. 18. Michigan State trailed Notre Dame in the second overtime when Dantonio, rather than attempt a potential game-tying field goal, called for the fake. The Spartans executed and scored the game-winning touchdown. More adversity arrived after the game with Dantonio's heart attack, but Michigan State continued to win. The fourth-quarter rallies against both Northwestern and Purdue also stand out.
What's next: Michigan State got snubbed from the BCS bowls, but the Spartans still have a great opportunity in front of them in the Capital One Bowl against defending national champion Alabama. After a regular season filled with milestones, the Spartans aim for one more as they're 0-3 in bowls under Dantonio and haven't won a Jan. 1 game since the 2000 Citrus Bowl. Michigan State loses Jones, Gordon and several other key seniors, but Cousins returns in 2011 as the program continues to build toward elite status.