Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The fifth installment in a series examining the best and worst outcomes, within reason, for each Big Ten squad.
A young offensive backfield blossoms, Greg Jones headlines a deeper defense and the Spartans actually exceed expectations and take another step in their evolution.
High expectations have been the kiss of death before in East Lansing, but Michigan State proves it has turned a corner under head coach Mark Dantonio. Michigan State relies on its seasoned defense early as the competitions get settled at both running back and quarterback. Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both perform well in a shared role before one -- we'll go with Nichol -- takes the reins for the Notre Dame game. Redshirt freshman Caulton Ray leads the way at running back and gets plenty of help from true frosh Larry Caper and Edwin "The Rock" Baker. Nichol capitalizes on an improved receiving corps and the Big Ten's deepest crop of tight ends, while Jones wins the league's defensive player of the year award.
Michigan State has no trouble in the opener, and the defense steps up big against Central Michigan and dangerous quarterback Dan LeFevour, who throws only one touchdown pass in a 38-13 loss. The team then heads to Spartan Stadium South and beats Notre Dame there for the seventh consecutive time. Entering the Top 25 rankings for the first time this season, Michigan State travels to Madison and gets a big performance from its stable of running backs against the Badgers.
The team improves to 5-0 and further shows the tide has turned in the state by beating archrival Michigan 31-10. Nichol exploits a weak Wolverines secondary for three touchdown passes, while Jones introduces himself to freshmen quarterbacks Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson. With back-to-back wins against Michigan, Spartan Nation takes the high road and avoids putting celebratory billboards all over the state.
Michigan State's toughest stretch of the season follows with games against Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota. The team stumbles once, most likely at Illinois, but maintains a top-20 ranking heading into November. Western Michigan provides a big test for the Spartans' deep secondary, but Chris L. Rucker and Trenton Robinson both record interceptions in a 38-24 win. After handling Purdue, the Spartans host Penn State with a share of the Big Ten title on the line. Veteran kicker Brett Swenson secures his soon-to-be Lou Groza Award by nailing the game-winning 52-yard field goal as Michigan State prevails.
Ohio State reaches the Rose Bowl, but Michigan State lands a second BCS bowl berth and heads to the Fiesta Bowl, where it faces undefeated Boise State. The Spartans' secondary plays its
best game of the season as the team survives to finish 12-1. Jones elects to remain in East Lansing for his senior year. The recruits continue to file in. Dantonio says he'll coach MSU forever.
A young backfield falters behind a flimsy line, mediocre statistics translate to mediocre results and cries of "Same Old Sparty" return as Michigan State falls short of expectations.
The quarterback competition never truly gets resolved as neither Cousins nor Nichol show enough consistency at the helm of the offense. Michigan State discovers that life without Javon Ringer stinks. An offensive line that looks a little shaky right now becomes a major weakness, and the defensive front doesn't fare much better in stopping the run. Opponents gear their blocking schemes toward Jones and no one else steps up. Despite more bodies in the secondary, the Spartans miss All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley.
After a ho-hum win against Montana State, the Spartans find themselves on the ropes against LeFevour and Central Michigan before prevailing in overtime. Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen and a veteran Fighting Irish offensive line dominate the Spartans the next week in South Bend, as Notre Dame ends its home losing streak to Michigan State in convincing fashion. In a true swing game, Michigan State blows a 21-point lead at Wisconsin and falls on a last-minute field goal set up by an interception and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
More mistakes follow at home against Michigan, as Swenson has a field goal attempt blocked just before halftime and the Wolverines take it 80 yards the other way for a touchdown. Dantonio rips his coaches in his pre-halftime interview and then is seen slapping himself as he runs to the locker room. Michigan blows out the Spartans in the second half, sending fans to the exits midway through the fourth quarter.
The Spartans drop their fourth straight at Illinois, unable to keep pace with the Illini and their dynamic offense. Michigan State splits its next two home games before stumbling again at Minnesota. Wins against Western Michigan and Purdue give Michigan State a chance at salvaging a minor bowl game, but the Spartans stumble badly against Penn State for the second straight year. Evan Royster runs for 200 yards and the Spartans allow six sacks in a 45-7 loss.
Jones leaves early for the NFL draft. For the first time at Michigan State, Dantonio says goodbye to a key assistant (actually three of them). Several top in-state recruits switch their commitments from Michigan State to Michigan, which finishes the season 10-2 and wins the Capital One Bowl.