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Michigan State sharpens focus as stakes get higher

Michigan State was getting casual.

The Spartans were winning Big Ten games, just as they had in 2013, but not with their standard precision and 60-minute focus. A near blown lead against Nebraska. Poor decisions from players and coaches against Purdue. A sloppy first half at Indiana.

Other than a fleeting moment against Nebraska -- when Huskers receiver Alonzo Moore nearly corralled a touchdown in the final minute -- the Spartans never looked like they actually might lose. But they didn't look right, either. They seemed to be losing their edge.

Well, it's back. MSU can thank in-state rival Michigan for restoring it just in time.

The decision by Wolverines players -- I believe coach Brady Hoke when he says he had no involvement -- to drive a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before Saturday's game lit the fuse for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and his team. After all they had done since Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment in 2007 -- a 5-1 mark against Michigan, a 63-24 record overall, an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship, and another shared Big Ten title -- the Spartans were still being shown up on their home field.

Maybe Michigan's act was more about itself than its opponent. Pardon the pun, but the Wolverines' disintegrating season was at stake Saturday. Michigan's recent losses to MSU stem from inferior talent development, coaching and execution, but the Wolverines also haven't matched the Spartans' intensity. The staking was intended to stoke the Maize and Blue.

It had a stronger effect on the men in green, a bunch that feels disrespected, even when they aren't, and uses snubs, real or perceived, as fuel.

Despite a few errors, MSU bullied Michigan again. And with a chance to kneel on the ball or score another touchdown in the closing seconds, MSU left its starters in and rubbed Michigan's nose in the end zone dirt.

"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the 35-11 win.

The line was vintage Dantonio: premeditated and purposeful, smart and succinct, delivered with the trademark scowl on the outside but probably a small smile within. He paused for effect, then moments later addressed "the little brother stuff, all the disrespect" in a candid post-game session with reporters.

"Throwing the stake down in our back yard out here and coming out there like they're all that," he said. "It got shoved up ..."

Dantonio trailed off, but he made his point. We all know exactly where it got shoved.

Some teams are at their best when calm and cool. Dantonio and the Spartans are at their best when PO'd. Michigan's stake-and-shake sharpened Michigan State's focus.

The Spartans were supposed to beat Michigan. They have superior talent and coaching. But another watered-down win would have left an empty feeling before a two-week prep for the Ohio State showdown.

Instead, they recorded their most lopsided win against Michigan since 1967.

"We had enough emotion to carry us, but we also need to stay fresh and always need to bring our emotions to a football game," Dantonio said Sunday night. "That's sort of been a trademark of who we've become."

They had veered from their trademarks early in Big Ten play. Too many technical breakdowns on defense, too many risky throws by Connor Cook and even a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt by Dantonio. And a casual attitude.

While MSU hiccuped, Ohio State had been punishing its opponents behind blossoming quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Nov. 8 narrative subtly shifted. An Ohio State win in Spartan Stadium, where the home side hasn't lost since 2012, began to look more plausible.

Then Saturday happened. The Spartans regained their swagger. Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead at Penn State and was extremely fortunate to win in two overtimes. Some who might have been leaning OSU might now be leaning MSU.

The Spartans shouldn't expect Ohio State to pull a similar pre-game stunt Nov. 8, nor should they expect the emotion from Saturday to carry them through the next 12 days. But the Michigan game reminded the Spartans of who they are and how they must play as the stakes get much, much higher.

"November ... defines you," Dantonio said Sunday. "We've got an off week, so we should be able to get fresh emotionally and fresh physically and have some additional time to work on Ohio State.

"There will be no excuses. We'll be ready to play."

Remember when MSU used to pull silly stunts like Michigan did? It used to be a silly program with a silly coach.

MSU is now an elite program with an elite coach. But this Spartans team hadn't looked elite until Saturday.

They needed a spark. Linebacker Joe Bolden and his Michigan teammates provided it.

MSU now can get back to its high-stakes mission: winning another championship.