Spartans feeling rosy after taking final step
December, 8, 2013
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- How does a good team become a championship team? It starts with a message from the head coach to the defensive coordinator.
"We need you down here," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told Pat Narduzzi.
Narduzzi, the Spartans' defensive coordinator, spends the majority of games in the coaches' booth before joining the team on the sideline for the closing minutes. But after Ohio State scored four times on six possessions to take a 24-17 lead in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game, Dantonio needed his top assistant with the unit, pronto.
Quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes were piling up yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. Ohio State appeared unstoppable, wiping out a 17-0 deficit and building the narrative of a team bound for the national championship.
Instead, Michigan State changed the script. The Spartans were the ones who finished, the ones who took that final step from good to elite, the ones who handed Urban Meyer his first loss at Ohio State. The ones who, as Dantonio had proclaimed at the team banquet following a disappointing 2012 season, became The Ones.
A 34-24 win secured Michigan State's first outright Big Ten title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
"We just made history today," senior safety Isaiah Lewis said on the field afterward. "I never thought in a million years that I'd be a part of something like this. We finally did it.
"This is a lifetime experience."
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMichigan State celebrated its return to the Rose Bowl after creating a "lifetime moment" Saturday.
The title game felt like a lifetime with several plot twists. Michigan State dominated the first 20 minutes, and Ohio State dominated the middle 20 minutes.
When Narduzzi made his way to the sideline with about four minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Denicos Allen did a double-take.
"I'm like, 'Oh, man, it's getting real. We've gotta step up,'" Allen said.
The Spartan Dawgs finally got a stop, stuffing Miller on third-and-4. After Michigan State reclaimed the lead on a beautifully designed Connor Cook touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, the defense recorded a three-and-out.
But how long could Michigan State keep the nation's No. 3 scoring offense at bay? When Ohio State partially blocked a punt and took possession at the Michigan State 47, a score seemed inevitable. Three plays later, the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-2.
"G Hot Cyclone Gun," Narduzzi said of the play he called. "We had a timeout, and I switched the call right at the last second. It was Denicos coming off of one side, and Taiwan Jones coming off the other edge. I figured whichever [way] they came, at least we had two great linebackers coming off the edge."
Meyer sent Miller to the short side, and Allen brought him down shy of the marker. Michigan State allowed just 25 yards in the fourth quarter to a Buckeyes team that consistently had eroded its opponents with Miller's shiftiness and Carlos Hyde's power.
"Teams wear down when they play us," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "Shoot, we practice faster and harder than a lot of stuff out here today, not in terms of hitting, but speed between plays."
Michigan State's course correction on defense helped secure the win, but so did an offense that completed an incredible turnaround after becoming a national punch line in September. Cook, the quarterback who wondered if the coaches had lost faith in him following the team's Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame, claimed title-game MVP honors after passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Cook consistently made plays on the move, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, as Ohio State bottled up the run before giving way late.
"I learned to never give up, to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances are," Cook said. "Score, situation, whatever stage you're on. I really didn't learn anything about our team, because this is the way we've been all year."
Perhaps the rest of us are learning that Michigan State is the next force in the Big Ten. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. Michigan State has dominated Michigan under his watch and tormented Wisconsin, as well.
But a championship had been fleeting until Saturday night.
"My dad used to always say, 'Complete your circles,'" Dantonio said, referring to his father, Justin, who passed away days before the 2011 season. "I thought we did that. I never get too excited. I don't ever get too down. I live for my players.
"They made a lifetime moment tonight for all of us."
When it ended, players scrambled for roses to place between their teeth. As they've done after every win this season, they danced to rap songs in the locker room.
"We're doing things that haven't been done here in a while," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "We're trying to go down as never forgotten."
That much is certain. They'll go down as the group that took the Green and White back to Pasadena.