- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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About once a week, a student at Fairfield Christian Academy pokes his head into the athletic director's office and relays a recent realization.
"He'll stop in and say, 'I didn't know you threw a fake pass against Notre Dame,'" Aaron Bates said.
More than three years after the play known as "Little Giants," Bates is reminded of his signature moment at Michigan State. In September 2010, the Spartans trailed Notre Dame 31-28 in overtime when Bates, the team's punter and holder, threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt on a fake field goal to win the game.
"We'll talk about [the play] a little bit, and then they'll go on their way," said Bates, who became Fairfield Christian Academy's athletic director this spring. "And then the next week, I'll have a new kid come in. It's something."
Indeed, Michigan State's knack for calling trick plays is something. It has become a hallmark of Spartans coach Mark Dantonio and the program, partly because of the playful names attached to the plays, but mostly because they've worked so well.
Michigan State employed its latest fake last week at Nebraska when it lined up for a field goal but instead sent punter Mike Sadler on the move. Sadler picked up a first down, and the Spartans eventually scored a touchdown in a 41-28 win.
Sadler's dash placed "Charlie Brown" in the glorious glossary with "Hey Diddle Diddle," "Mouse Trap" and, of course, "Little Giants" -- previous Spartans fakes that led to big wins.
"Our players like to see us take a calculated risk," Dantonio said. "We don't want to do it every game. We've done it twice in 10 games, we did it once last year, so it’s not like we’re doing these things every week.
"It's just a part of who we are."
Dantonio isn't sure how the tricks trademark evolved but credits the success to his players. Bates recalls executing a successful fake field goal against Indiana in 2007, and how Dantonio then wanted to run one every week.
The reputation grew in 2010 with "Little Giants" and "Mouse Trap," a fake punt pass from Bates to Bennie Fowler that helped Michigan State erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at Northwestern.
"That was kind of the breakout year for the trick plays," Sadler said. "In the past, they ran a couple fakes, but 2010 was ‘Little Giants,’ ‘Mousetrap’ and everything. That's when we became known for it because of the magnitude of those two plays."
Michigan State runs through the fakes at every practice during the special teams portion of the workout. The Spartans enter games with "at least a dozen in our back pocket," according to Sadler, but the plays actually used are based largely on opponent and situation.
"We create them as we go," Dantonio said.
A fake punt sweep employed last season against Michigan, nicknamed "Sandlot," wasn't practiced during the week but still worked as Sadler raced for 26 yards.
"There's always some base ones, plays that will work against any look," Sadler said. "And then every week, there's one or two specific looks. We just try to play according to their tendencies. That's why the one at Iowa worked ['Hey Diddle Diddle'], because they turn their backs. Same with Northwestern, when we ran 'Mouse Trap.'
"But that same fake wouldn't work against a bunch of other teams in the Big Ten."
The famous fakes enhance the profiles of often overlooked specialists like Bates and Sadler, good friends who compare stats. Bates finished his career with a passer rating of 400.4, while Sadler averages 18 yards per carry.
MSU's coaches make the planning process interactive, encouraging players to brainstorm plays and names for them. Sadler is still waiting for one of his ideas to be used in a game.
"Mike has a tendency to have a few over-the-top suggestions," special teams coach Mike Tressel said, laughing. "There's no doubt we have fun with coming up with them and naming them. The kids get into it."
So does Dantonio. He's a defensive-minded coach who comes from the typically conservative Jim Tressel coaching tree, but his penchant for trick plays shows a different side.
Even the playful names like "Mouse Trap" ("We had to get them to take the cheese," Dantonio joked afterward) and "Hey Diddle Diddle" (send Sadler up the middle) point to a sense of humor Bates describes as unique.
"Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people," Sadler said, "but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks."
The Spartans' top-rated defense makes it easier to gamble, but Dantonio often calls fakes in the fourth quarter, with the Spartans trailing and with the ball in MSU territory.
Opponents are aware of MSU's trick record. As Michigan prepared to face Michigan State, Wolverines coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com, "I'm sure Mark's got something for this week."
Normally people associate defensive coaches with being risk-averse people, but you don’t run that fake against Nebraska if you're not trying to win a championship. While he's a defensive coach, he's definitely not afraid to take risks.
”-- Mike Sadler on Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
But the knowledge rarely helps. Dantonio said Nebraska looked ready for "Charlie Brown" but still couldn't prevent a first down. After "Hey Diddle Diddle" worked against Iowa, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz lamented, "We may never try to return one again."
Predicting when and where Michigan State will run a fake is futile, even for those closely involved.
"There's times you might feel like he's in the mood and this is the right time and he doesn't do it," Tressel said. "Other times, you're shocked that he does do it. I suppose if he’s keeping us on our toes and we don't know, that means the other guys can't know, either."
It's unlikely Dantonio has emptied his bag of tricks for the 2013 season. Don't be surprised if he has something ready if Michigan State returns to the Big Ten title game.
"He wants to win," Bates said. "He thinks the ground-and-pound and the conservative mentality is probably good for the most part, but you do have to take those risks here and there if you want to be a champion."