Sunday, October 23, 2011
Spartans becoming the kings of October
By Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins scanned the team's 2011 schedule, one stretch of games practically glared back at him.
One month of games, in fact.
October brought a gauntlet of games that would make even the most confident teams shudder.
Oct. 1: at Ohio State
Oct. 15: Michigan
Oct. 22: Wisconsin
Oct. 29: at Nebraska
The four-pack would test Michigan State emotionally, physically and psychologically. It included a homecoming of sorts (25 Spartans are from Ohio), a genuine homecoming against a national-title favorite (Wisconsin), the biggest game of every Michigan State season (Michigan) and a game with major Legends division-title implications (Nebraska).
"Our schedule was going to be as challenging as anybody's," Cousins said. "We said, if we can get through October, look out."
The Spartans are three-fourths of the way through one of the toughest months for any team in recent Big Ten history. They are 3-0, in control of their fate in the Legends division and displaying incredible poise every time they take the field.
The Big Ten's drama kings were at it again Saturday night against No. 6 Wisconsin, falling behind early, surging ahead, losing a 14-point lead in the final minutes and then producing the play of the year in college football. Again.
Forget "Little Giants" or "Mousetrap." A play called "Rocket" tops them all.
When Keith Nichol came down with Cousins' 44-yard deflected Hail Mary pass and stretched across the goal line with no time left, lifting his team to a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin, Michigan State sent a message to the rest of the Big Ten.
Look out. The Spartans are coming.
"That's why you play to the end of the game," coach Mark Dantonio said.
October used to be the month where Michigan State fell apart, where it let down its fans after teasing them with strong September starts. But a program that used to be allergic to poise has displayed it more than any Big Ten team in the past year and a half.
In 2010, Michigan State persevered despite losing Dantonio for several weeks as he recovered from a heart attack. The challenges this season all have been on the field, and time after time, the Spartans have answered the bell.
Michigan State's Keith Nichol celebrates after hauling in the winning touchdown.
The latest concern stemmed from an emotion-charged win against archrival Michigan, a game that featured 13 Michigan State penalties, including a personal foul on William Gholston that resulted in the Big Ten suspending the sophomore defensive end for Saturday's game. Some branded Michigan State as a dirty team, especially after reading defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's comment about "60 minutes of unecessary roughness."
Dantonio felt his program was "under attack" during the week. Would all the discipline questions cause the Spartans to play more tentative or more reckless against Wisconsin?
Although Dantonio didn't suspend Gholston and praised the school's administration for sticking by his player, he challenged the team before Saturday night's game.
"I talked about having a perfect storm tonight," he said. "I said, 'No penalties.' And it's amazing we had zero penalties."
Michigan State avoided the flags and maintained its defensive aggressiveness, recording three sacks and five quarterback hurries against Wisconsin star Russell Wilson. The defense triggered the Spartans' comeback, as pressure from Denicos Allen forced Wilson to commit intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
"We know we're not a dirty team," said safety Trenton Robinson, who recorded an interception and a sack. "Sometimes, personal fouls and stuff happens. Around the country, every team has personal fouls. But for someone to be like, 'That's the dirtiest team in football,' that doesn't make any sense. ... We pushed through."
Michigan State held Wisconsin to 19 points below its season average. The Badgers had beaten each of their first six opponents by 31 points or more.
Yet if there was a downside to Wisconsin's dominant run since the middle of last season, it was that Bret Bielema's squad hadn't experienced many crunch-time situations. Since a 31-30 victory at Iowa, Wisconsin had won 10 games by 20 points or more. The team's only close contest, in the Rose Bowl against TCU, ended with a 21-19 loss.
While Wisconsin fought back courageously Saturday night, scoring two touchdowns in the final 8:10 to tie the game at 31-31, the Badgers had their issues in the final minute. They couldn't recover a Cousins fumble that would have set them up for a game-winning field-goal try. They allowed Michigan State to convert two third-and-longs. Bielema used timeouts when going to overtime with momentum might have been the smarter play.
And they couldn't bat down the ball at the end, leading to Nichol's crazy catch.
"We wanted to get the ball back," Bielema said. "... We were going for the win."
Wisconsin players applauded the strategy.
"I totally agree with him," running back Montee Ball said. "I would have done the same thing if I was in his position. You don't want to go into overtime if you don't have to."
Wisconsin dropped its fourth consecutive game here, and no loss was more heart-wrenching -- or surprising. Despite not playing a true road game, the Badgers came in as clear favorites, picked by just about everyone to win.
Robinson was particularly rankled by a comment that Michigan State would need "a miracle" to win on its home field.
"To laugh at us on TV and say it's going to take a miracle to win ... is just the ultimate disrespect," Robinson said.
After the game, Cousins met Wilson and told the Wisconsin star, "You're a class act, and I think you guys will be there in December, and I just hope we're there with you."
"There" is Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Cousins still considers Wisconsin the favorite, although that label could be applied to Michigan State.
But the gauntlet continues for the Spartans next week with what is in many ways a more important game at Nebraska. A win in Lincoln, and the Spartans survive October with a chance to do special things in December and January.
Can Michigan State summon the energy one more time?
"It's easy to get up when you win," Dantonio said, "because you believe something better is right around the corner for you. You think, 'OK, now what's next?' A lot of people talked about this stretch, playing Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, that stretch we had in October.
"Now we're 3-0. And we're going places."
Keith Nichol pulls in the winning touchdown for Michigan State, a 44-yard Hail Mary as time expired.