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Friday, October 17, 2008
Spartans get rid of October blues

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

In recent years, Michigan State's biggest obstacles weren't injuries, turnovers or penalties.

It was the calendar. 

When midnight struck on Oct. 1, the Spartans turned into pumpkins. By Halloween, they had usually fallen out of the Big Ten title picture and bowl contention. 

 
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 Mark Dantonio's Spartans are on a six-game win streak going into their matchup with Ohio State.

In the last seven seasons, Michigan State owns a 25-10 record in games before Oct. 1 and a 20-41 record after Oct. 1. The team's signature moments have been John L. Smith's halftime rant at Ohio State and a squandered 17-point, fourth-quarter lead.

Hot starts were met with skepticism, as everyone waited for the inevitable mental meltdown. This October, they might be waiting a while.

Michigan State is embracing the no-nonsense attitude of second-year coach Mark Dantonio and brings a six-game win streak into Saturday's home showdown against No. 12 Ohio State (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). The Spartans rank no better than 25th nationally in any major offensive or defensive statistical category, but tremendous discipline, physical play and a team-oriented approach has propelled them into the Big Ten title mix. 

Describing the change under Dantonio, senior quarterback Brian Hoyer used a phrase not uttered around East Lansing in quite some time. 

"This team is definitely mentally tough," Hoyer said. "There might be a time where, as the offense, the defense gives up a touchdown and you just have to keep fighting back, or the defense, they have to come up with a big time stop when the game's on the line.

"We're a stable team. We can handle the ups and downs, whereas before, if something went wrong, it was going down from there."

Michigan State's newfound discipline is reflected in its turnover margin (plus-1.43), which ranks sixth nationally. The team finished no better than 41st in turnover margin during the last four seasons. 

Even October hasn't slowed down the Spartans. Two weeks ago, they held off an Iowa rally and won, fittingly, on a great defensive play, as linebacker Adam Decker dropped Shonn Greene for a loss on fourth-and-1. Last Saturday, the Spartans played a virtually mistake-free game at Northwestern, scoring 17 points off Wildcats turnovers and committing none of their own.

Perhaps most encouraging about the win was the fact Michigan State played 59 of the 70 players who made the trip to Evanston. Dantonio called it, "An outstanding team win."

"He's going to demand toughness, he's going to demand a tough work ethic," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said of Dantonio, who served as Tressel's defensive coordinator from 2001-03. "He's just done a great job methodically demanding things from his staff and players, and now they've seen the proof that if you do things right, good things are going to happen."

Michigan State began to go down an all-too familiar path last season, dropping five of six games after a 4-0 start. But rather than complete the collapse, the Spartans bounced back to win their final two games.

"That's when we started to change people's minds," Hoyer said. "We also really changed our own mind."

Dantonio made last season about regaining respect. This fall, the Spartans are trying to establish themselves among the Big Ten's elite. 

Winning games in October is a must. 

"Last year, we provided the first couple of building blocks," running back Javon Ringer said. "Now we're just adding onto it with this year. So that's something that we need to be able to change, that we can still come out and play hard in October."

Added Dantonio: "Thus far, we've got our sixth win. That's a guarantee. There are no guarantees beyond that, absolutely none."

Saturday provides the next major test. These are the types of spotlight games where Michigan State usually falters. 

A victory against the defending Big Ten champions would further prove that the Spartans are disaster-proof.

"Call it what it is," Hoyer said. "It's a big opportunity and something that we're excited for."