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September 21, 2006
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Yet the Michigan State quarterback's name inevitably comes up after those two players ? if at all ? during any discussion of All-America or Heisman Trophy candidates. The lack of respect stems from his team's failure to qualify for a bowl last year and his 11-10 record as a starter.
Stanton now has a golden opportunity to change the national impression of himself and his team.
If Michigan State (3-0) knocks off No. 12 Notre Dame (2-1) on Saturday night, the Spartans will enter the Big Ten portion of their schedule undefeated and almost certainly in the top 25. Stanton will earn a reputation as the guy who beat Quinn's Fighting Irish two consecutive times.
"I think the big thing is we have an opportunity to play on national television and get a name out there for Michigan State," Stanton said. "That's the biggest thing. Going against a caliber of team like Notre Dame and getting a quality win could definitely help our team."
Stanton and the Spartans had this opportunity before.
Michigan State opened last season with a four-game winning streak that included a stirring 44-41 overtime victory at Notre Dame. Stanton threw for three touchdowns and rushed for a fourth score as the Spartans withstood a 487-yard performance from Quinn.
"The level of competition on that field that day was amazing with the physicality and the way the game transpired, going down to the wire and then to overtime," Stanton said. "It's probably the most memorable game I've been a part of so far."
One week later, Michigan State buried Illinois 61-14 and soared to No. 11 in the national rankings. For the rest of the season, the team that could do no wrong in September did very little right.
First the Spartans lost an overtime heartbreaker to Michigan.
Next they blew a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State.
Then they got flattened by Northwestern.
"I think we went through every single way you could lose a football game," Stanton said.
Michigan State dropped six of its last seven games to finish 5-6. Stanton played the last three weeks with a chipped bone in his right thumb and ended the season by throwing four interceptions in a loss to Penn State.
Stanton considers it a lesson learned.
"No matter what happens, you have to play the next week like it's your last week," Stanton said. "That's the only thing that matters. You can't worry about what happened the week before, can you possibly to go to a bowl game, or all those things other people worry about. When you worry about those things it kind of takes away from the game."
So far this season, Stanton has given his teammates and fans no reason to worry.
Stanton has thrown for six touchdowns and run for three more while helping the Spartans average 39 points per game. He has maintained his status as the Big Ten's all-time leader in career completion percentage with a 66-percent accuracy rate.
His senior leadership has helped the entire team rebuild its confidence after last year's disappointment.
"Your great leaders, they have a tendency to infect people with their attitude," Michigan State coach John L. Smith said. "That's what he brings to the table. He's not afraid to smack you upside the head and say, 'We're going to do this. We're going to do that. We're going to take the ball down and we're going to score.' He's just that way in his attitude every time he takes the field.''
Stanton has maintained that competitive fire as long as he can remember.
He was a two-sport athlete who threw a 90-mph fastball and hit over .500 at Farmington Hills (Mich.) Harrison High School. Stanton arrived at Harrison as a junior and made such an immediate impact that he took over the starting quarterback job from Division I prospect Agim Shabaj, who moved to wide receiver and later joined Stanton at Michigan State.
"We never lost a game while he was here," Harrison coach John Herrington said. "We won two state championships, and most of the games were mercies. We had maybe one close game."
Stanton hasn't won quite as often at Michigan State thus far, but he still maintains the same resolute belief that he can carry a team to victory. That confidence is evident when Stanton evaluates himself as a quarterback.
"There may be someone who throws a better spiral or throws it harder or farther," Stanton said, "but at the end of the day, with the combination of what I can do, I'll take me against anybody."
In case you think those are just the brash comments of a guy with an inflated opinion of his abilities, check out what Pittsburgh linebacker Clint Session said last week.
"I think he's the best quarterback I've ever gone against since I've been playing college football," Session told Pantherlair.com. "He's so athletic. He can run. He can pass. He can do whatever."
And that was before Stanton did whatever he wanted against Pittsburgh.
Stanton threw for 198 yards, rushed for 105 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in a 38-23 victory over the Panthers. One week earlier, he threw three touchdown passes and rushed for two more scores in a 52-20 thrashing of Eastern Michigan.
"He's a heck of a player," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "He's a dual threat who can run. He can throw. He can throw in the pocket. He can roll from the pocket. He can throw across his body. He makes some phenomenal throws where he'll roll to his left, turn back and throw it to his right.''
His playmaking ability has made Stanton one of the nation's most valuable players.
When he played well last September, the Spartans responded.
As he struggled down the stretch, his team followed suit.
Stanton has played this game long enough to know the correlation between a quarterback's success and his team's victory total. Stanton knows Saturday's outcome could depend on whether he outperforms Quinn.
"There are three or four plays a quarterback makes or doesn't make in a game ? especially one of this nature ? that can decide whether a team wins or loses,'' Stanton said as he previewed this weekend's showdown with Notre Dame.
And the fact of the matter is that Stanton's team hasn't won enough for him to earn many personal accolades.
Productive quarterbacks with .500 records may be respected, but they're rarely rewarded. Individual honors don't come until their teams start contending for BCS appearances.
"(Awards) take care of themselves when teams find ways to win against real good football teams," Stanton said.
The Spartans' schedule gives them that chance.
Stanton will try to knock off Quinn's Irish one more time this weekend. Next month he will help the Spartans attempt to settle some unfinished business against Smith's top-ranked Buckeyes.
If he beats them, Stanton just might join them at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.