November 28, 2010

DotComp: Spartans show mettle of perennial contender

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - There is a misconception that the formula and personality for Michigan State football in 2010 is winning games with fake field goals, fake punts, a little luck, and some sort of mystical charm that will surely expire in the near future.

Those things certainly helped Michigan State win 10 games and get in position to win a share of the Big Ten championship.

But when it came time to clinch the championship and finish, the Spartans reduced down to what is becoming their true personalty and composition: that of playing with sharp, fundamental toughness and new, full confidence.

Mark Dantonio spent the last four years honing the sharpness, fundamentals and toughness. This past week, he stressed confidence and belief.

It all came together in the form of a 28-10 lead with 5 minutes to play at Penn State. There was little drama through the first 55 minutes, not a single, huge defining moment for the ages, no legendary happening. Just a few dozen guy blocking, tackling, playing hard, sound and sharp, watching the points keep growing.

For this game, this championship, the Spartans took on the serious, focused, stoic personality of their coach in finishing the gig. The Spartans were physical, crisp and systematic. You have to be impressed with the way in which Michigan State harnessed those ingredients when it mattered most.

Dantonio likes the fact that Michigan State had to finish the job at Penn State, the cite where many Spartan seasons have died.

"I think it shows we have discipline, it shows we have maturity," Dantonio said.

Both traits were four years in the making. The presence of each will give the Spartans a chance to achieve consistent success in the near term.

"We want to be a player in this league," Dantonio said. "When I first got the job back in '07, I said we were going to measure up, measure up as a football team. And we will continue to measure up in this conference. That's because we will play hard and we'll have an attitude about us and prepare hard. Does that mean it's going to translate into 11 wins every season? You can't say that. A lot of breaks have to go your way. There are a lot of good players in this conference, and Nebraska will add to that. But it's my hope that we have created a foundation here that we will continue to build, step by step."

Saturday, that foundation delivered a blunt-object beating to Penn State.

The Spartan running game cranked up, with 163 yards on 39, ball-controlling attempts.

Pass protection was superb, preventing Penn State from registering a sack. Kirk Cousins, who limped around all last weekend with a sprained ankle and sprained shoulder, was rarely off his feet.

With a good ground game keeping PSU linebackers and safeties honest, and fine pass protection, Cousins was an efficient 17-of-22 for 152 yards, with 2 TDs and no interceptions.

Tight ends were his targets du jour, as Brian Linthicum arose from the back pages of the playbill with a star performance. He served as the team leader in receptions for the first time in his career, with four catches and 42 yards. He also sealed the play-side linebacker on an outside zone to his side in clearing the way for Edwin Baker's 7-yard TD run on the opening drive. Fellow tight end Charlie Gantt also had 4 catches, good for 38 yards.

Last week's aerial hero, Mark Dell, didn't catch a pass. But MSU capitalized on Penn State's awareness of him.

"We thought this would be a good day for the tight ends to get going," Linthicum said. "We saw some opening, based on how they play defense, with a lot of single-safety deep stuff, and also the fact that we haven't utilized the tight ends a lot this year. We thought they might not pay a lot of attention to the tight ends, and we came in knowing there was a good chance Kirk would be throwing to us."

And these aren't just any tight ends. Gantt and Linthicum are quality receivers, quality blockers. They are emblematic of a championship team. They can lay in wait, like Dell did on this day, and deliver powerful body shots when called upon.

Five years ago, Gantt signed to play for John L. Smith out of high school. Linthicum initially selected Clemson over Dantonio's Michigan State, then changed his mind and transferred to MSU. Dell was recruited by Smith, committed to Smith, but stuck with MSU a few months later when Dantonio was hired.

Dantonio has used all kinds - his recruits, Smith's recruits, transfers, believers, sleepers and blue chippers - in forming the type of team that could win 10 games, and then come to this football shrine known as Beaver Stadium, ignore the 30-degree temperatures, the 21 mile-an-hour wind gusts, embrace the moment, not shy away from its magnitude, and simply focus on gridiron tasks, climb Mount Nittany and plant a championship flag.

"I think we had a very workman-like attitude," Dantonio said. "We ran the ball effectively. We passed the ball when we needed to. We came up with trick plays. I thought we played very fundamentally sound for the most part. I thought we were in charge for pretty much the whole football game.

"To get to where we are right now, a lot of work had to be done. You see a lot of satisfaction."

There were tight hugs, plenty of smiles and celebrations. Maybe not a lot of elation.

"Coach D was more happy than emotional," Baker said. "He didn't show too much emotion."

Dantonio asked the Spartans to visualize victory all week. And it came off just about the way he said it would. And this championship came off, just about the way he told recruits it would.

"When Coach D came to my house when he recruited me, he said you will be part of a Big Ten championship," said Baker, who rushed for 118 yards. "He didn't say when, he didn't say how long it would be, but it's here now. So he's a man of his word and he's a great guy."

Dantonio 'Extremely Content'

Someone handed Dantonio a Big Ten Championship hat before he sat down at the microphone for the post-game press conference.

"It's the first time I've had one of these hats on in a while," said Dantonio, grinning humbly.

No euphoria. No fist pumps to the air. Just satisfaction in a job well-done, a goal accomplished.

"I'm extremely content," he said, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. "I guess that's the way I feel. I don't feel like I'm going to go run down the hall with my hair on fire or anything like that. I'm just very, very content."

He told the players all week that the experience of having playing for the Big Ten title at Penn State two years ago, and losing 49-18, would help in their quest this time.

The players have learned to trust him and believe him. Even with the ground game seemingly sputtering in three of the last four games, even in having dug deficits of 17, 17 and 15 points in three of their last four games, even with the starting quarterback playing with unhealthy limbs, the players believed they would post Michigan State's first football win at Penn State since 1965, the program's first Big Ten title since 1990, and the first 11-win season in school history. That's all.

"We've tried to build a foundation," Dantonio said. "We've been to four straight bowl games, and in '08 we came here and failed miserably on the same type of quest. This year we had 35 guys who've been in this situation before. We had guys who were much more confident and much more aware of their surroundings. I don't know if 'focused' is the right word, but confident. Experience breeds success, and because we had been in this situation in '08, it gave us an upside in terms of taking the next step and winning the championship."

Not since the Rose Bowl-clinching Indiana game of 1987 have I seen a Michigan State football team deliver like this, on call.

By "on call," I mean in a championship situation, I mean harnessing something close to their A-game when there was so much to gain, so much to lose.

I'm not saying Michigan State played as well on this day as they did in their "perfect game" against Indiana in '87. I'm not saying this team played as well as the Spartans of '99 in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2000. But that Citrus Bowl team had already accomplished so much when they went to Orlando for the postseason exhibition. There wasn't quite as much pressure.

This year's team still had every opportunity to stumble back to 10-2, every reason to crumble under championship pressure. Instead, they excelled.

"It was probably the best we have played collectively since Wisconsin," Dantonio said in reference to MSU's Oct. 2 victory over the No. 5-ranked Badgers, a win that should make voters stop and reconsider why they are voting 11-1 Wisconsin ahead of 11-1 Michigan State.

Linthicum: 'Okay, if he kicks it to me ...'

I have heard cynics downplay Michigan State's success in 2010, claiming some sort of witchcraft must have been at work, with the Little Giants trick play, and Mouse Trap, and so forth.

Today, after the game, out-of-town media were asking Dantonio and players how they managed to shed MSU's history of foul-ups. Then Dantonio was asked, by a Detroit TV man, if the Spartans were going to be one-hit wonders.

Dantonio answered that question the way he handled the whole week, the whole season, his whole tenure at Michigan State. Measured, diplomatic and without emotion, he had a stern answer, "No, we've been here before. Two years ago."

I think that same news man asked that same question in '08.

The Spartans didn't win the Big Ten title in '08, but they played for it. That's not enough to claim to be a perennial title contender, but it's a necessary step toward becoming one. Dantonio believes they couldn't have won this one, without the first one.

But there were lessons in this victory, too.

The Spartans got caught trying to do a little too much, at the end of this game. Leading 28-16 with 2:02 to go, and Penn State out of time outs, Baker carried on an inside run for a gain of 5, 6, 7. All that he needed to do was get a knee to the ground, and end the play, thereby creating a fresh set of downs in the victory formation and allow MSU to run out the rest of the clock. But while surging ahead for 6, 7, 8 yards, he was stripped of the ball before he fell to the ground.

Penn State recovered the fumble at the 50-yard line, and needed to score twice in two minutes. Sound impossible? Not to MSU fans. They have seen five opponents beat the Spartans this way since 1997. Meanwhile, I don't know any Spartan fan who can name a single time in MSU football history that Michigan State has won a game with two scores in the final minutes, with an onside kick mixed in.

Seven plays after the fumble, on second-and-goal from the MSU 4-yard line with 1:11 left, Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson intercepted a Penn State pass in the end zone.

Instead of sliding and taking a knee for a touchback, and cementing the game, Robinson inexplicably attempted to return the interception out of the end zone. He made it to the 4-yard line, and was stripped of the ball. Penn State recovered at the MSU 4-yard line, and the Spartans' Big Ten championship was uncertain again.

Gordon got in Robinson's face and yelled at him. I've never seen a player give it to a teammate as harsh as this, at any time in any sport. Robinson wanted to hide. Jones and Chris L. Rucker tried to console him.

Penn State scored on the next play, cutting the lead to 28-22. There would be an onside kick attempt with :55 seconds left. Spartan fans tried not to vomit. To them, this was becoming a cruel, horrific replay of losses to Purdue ('97 and '98), Minnesota ('98), Louisiana Tech ('03) and Central Michigan ('09) when the opponent scored twice in the final moments, aided by a recovered onside kick.

But to these Spartan players, some of whom remember the CMU game of last year but choose not to dwell on it, this situation merely put them in drill mode. They didn't shrivel up and fear the worst.

"We huddled up before we went out there for the onside kick, and we were like, 'This is going to win the game right here,'" Cunningham said. "In practice, we always go out, the hands team, and we say, 'This is going to be to win the game.' And Brian (Linthicum) recovered it and we ended up getting the green victory call."

"There was no panic," Linthicum said, not speaking for MSU fans, of course. "We just knew that there was more work to be done."

Linthicum and the hands team had rehearsed this moment many times. But Penn State changed things on them.

"We checked our alignment and I am usually a blocker on onside kicks," Linthicum said.

By blocking, he means he is on the front line. His job is to make contact with one or two Penn State players, hit them, and hold them off while one of the MSU players on the second line receives the kick.

"It's never been kicked to me in practice all year," Linthicum said. "Usally the back guys receive it, or Le'Veon Bell, who is inside of me, receives it. I have to line up on the third guy, but Penn State lined up so wide that it that put me pretty much in the middle of where he was going to quick it. And the ball was pointed straight at me.

"I told myself, 'Okay, make sure I block.' And then at the last second I'm like, 'Okay, if he kicks it to me, it's like this: just get the ball.'"

No nerves, apparently. Just anticipation and optimism. And belief.

These are not the same old Spartans.

"I thought about it when I was standing there: It's the greatest feeling in the world to know that you have control of your destiny," Linthicum said. "I knew if it was kicked to me I was going to do whatever I could to get it.

"I told myself right before he kicked it, 'This is your chance.' Right when he kicked it, I started running forward. He kicked it pretty hard, and it was coming to me. It took a great bounce right to me
and caught it on a good hop."

Game over. Championship won.

"Time and time again, our backs were against the wall, going back to the Alamo Bowl last year and every time we have had our backs against the wall we have responded," Cousins said. "To win here is special and it's another one of our demons we killed, by winning this championship, winning it here, winning 11 games, getting it done at crunch time."

Killing demons? That sounds about right. The last two minutes were like a live football adaptation of "The Exorcist."

"Those two turnovers at the end, they don't have to happen," Dantonio said. "But we're fine. We're over that."

Calm and smiling, Dantonio consoled Robinson after the game. And offered a teaching point.

"I found Trent," Dantonio said. "He makes one mistake, there. You have to get down in the end zone. You have to look at the positive and dwell on the positive and don't look back. He feels bad. But we won the football game. In the end, that's all that will be remembered. He was instrumental in getting to this success."

'This Is A Different Green'

Greg Jones is precisely the wrong guy to ask about Michigan State's past bumblings. Dantonio is the only head coach Jones has known at Michigan State. In four seasons, Jones has qualified for four bowl games, won one Big Ten title and was named first-team All-America.

But Jones was asked to comment on Michigan State's past failures and penchant for "screwing it up."

The ever-polite Jones respected the question.

"We didn't find a way to screw it up this time," Jones said. "I think that's what people have to realize, that this is a different Michigan State, this is a different green. You're either with us or you're not. But Coach D, he's the man. He motivates us. He instills it in us to win.

"He puts it in our minds and I'm proud of it. I like the way he does things and obviously we have been rewarded.

"Every year, we're going to win a lot of games and go to a bowl game. That's all I know. I'm just happy about it. And now we're Big Ten champs, I'm going to enjoy it."

Jones was asked about the culture change, as if he were around when John L. slapped himself in Columbus, or when Bobby Williams said he didn't know if he had lost the team

"When I was a freshman and the seniors would tell me what it was like before, and Gordo (Eric Gordon) would tell me what it was like before and I couldn't believe it," Jones said.

That's all Jones knows about the distant past: stories of how it used to be.

Last year's 6-7 record was in no way a red-letter year. But most clear-thinking observers could see that there was a good team in there somewhere, at Michigan State. During the off-season, Dantonio and his staff dusted away at the diamond.

"The culture change started back when I was recruited," Jones said, offering his best guess. "The first thing Coach D talked about was winning. It was straight business and I knew right then what it was going to be like."

Gordon, a fifth-year senior linebacker who broke the school record for career starts with 48 on Saturday, was part of Smith's last recruiting class.

"I came here in 2006 and went through the whole coaching change," Gordon said. "When I first stepped foot on Michigan State's soil, I wanted to win a Big Ten Championship. Ever since then, every year, we've gone for it. We've played for the Big Ten Championship and lost. And finally, my senior year, everything came together. I'm glad to leave a legacy and to leave here as a senior knowing that I helped win a Big Ten Championship."

Dantonio was asked about Michigan State's underachieving culture of the past. Dantonio rejected that notion, and took ownership of the past.

"I'm a part of the culture," he said. "I was here for six years as an assistant coach from 1995-2000. We went to four bowl games at that point. There's great tradition at Michigan State. Now, we haven't won the championship in 20 years, but we've had good, solid football teams that were at bowls and played at a high level.

"What we wanted to do was try and develop consistency, and we wanted to continue to build a foundation. There was no concern on my part whatsoever when I came here in '07 that we'd be successful. It was just a matter of time. People will see that. People will be drawn to our program, recruits, etcetera, because of our championship, and not only that but because of our continuity in our coaching staff, and because of the continuity in terms of winning right now. We had a great deal of confidence coming into this football game. This program will only get better. It will not go south. It will only get stronger.

"We've been saying all year long, 'We will be champions.' It's nice to be able to say, 'We are champions.'"

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