October 23, 2011

DotComp: Under attack, Spartans strike back

EAST LANSING - Once upon a time, the occasional, crazy, legendary victory like this would suffice as a season-maker - maybe a decade-maker - for Spartan football.

But Michigan State's latest outlandish, fairy-tale ending - a 37-31 victory over No. 4 Wisconsin - feels like it might merely be Chapter 7 of a 13-game tour de glory.

With each new page that is written in the Mark Dantonio era, we're becoming less surprised when the Spartans reach deep down and harness championship mettle.

This time it came in the form of a 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins, off the facemask of B.J. Cunningham, and into the hands of Keith Nichol at the 1-yard line as time ran out. Nichol strained across the goal line for the winning touchdown.

Chris Fowler signed off on Saturday night saying that this game marked the most memorable ending in the 20-year history of ESPN GameDay. But MSU fans left the season comparing notes on whether this was the most memorable ending at Spartan Stadium in the last seven games.

It's been that long since last season's "Little Giants" masterpiece. That one, a fake field goal in overtime which defeated Notre Dame, propelled Michigan State to a season of good fortune and clutch capitalization, ending with the program's first share of the Big Ten title in 20 years.

Saturday night's drama packed similar flavor. Night-game. A surprise ending and an improbable means of victory. There was a backdrop of hugging, high-fiving delirium, with Spartan fans still in the stands 30 or 40 minutes after the game, howling happily into the darkness.

After this one, Dantonio made a happy comment about his racing heart.

That remark scared a few of us a little bit. After the "Little Giants" victory, Dantonio suffered a heart attack.

You know that story.

There would be no hospital scene in last night's sequel.

"Don't worry about Coach D, he'll be fine," Dantonio said at the end of his press conference, not entirely talking about his ticker, and instead eying his beaming wife across the room in the press trailer. "He'll be all right."

And so are the Spartans, because one has reason to believe that this delicious moment is not a season-maker for them, the way it might have been in other years.

For instance, T.J. Duckett's game-ending TD catch against Michigan in 2001 - while serving as a rich memory for years to come - merely improved the Spartans' bowl status just a little bit.

In 2008, Larry Caper's game-winning, 23-yard TD run in overtime against Michigan might have been the most memorable play in the history of Spartan Stadium's northeast corner of the end zone - until "Little Giants" less than a year later.

But the victory over Wisconsin wasn't quite as spontaneously surprising as "Little Giants" or the Caper run. This time, everyone knew the Hail Mary pass was coming. Hail Mary plays almost never work. But this one did, and it knocked a highly-ranked team from the list of the unbeaten and out of the national championship picture.

Late last night, ESPN compared this Cousins-to-Nichol touchdown to Flutie-to-Phelan and Kordell Stewart's TD pass which beat Michigan in 1994. In magnitude and drama, this one is arguably among the top three Hail Mary passes in college football history.

But the college football world was almost robbed of it. Officials failed to rule it a touchdown when watching it live. They correctly sent it upstairs for further review.

Dantonio was told on his headset by coaches at the press box level that Nichol appeared to have crossed the goal line. They felt the ruling would be over-turned and the Spartans would be declared the winner. Dantonio wasn't so sure. He's seen replay officials blow calls in the past.

For the first time since 1974, a packed Spartan Stadium crowd waited for an announcement over the public address system to learn whether Michigan State had won or not. Back in 1974, Michigan State's bid to upset No. 1-ranked Ohio State was in question as the Buckeyes appeared to have crossed the goal line - that very same north end zone goal line, in that exact vicinity - for the game-winning TD as time expired.

As was the case in '74, news from the public address system last night was positive for Spartan fans. This time, it was the referee doing the talking, overturning the ruling on the field, and setting off a jam pile of jubilation.

In '74, the good news for Spartan fans - after a 40-minute wait - was that Ohio State had not crossed the goal line in regulation time, triggering a Michigan State celebration that still wells the eyes of old-timers who witnessed it. That ruling enabled Levi Jackson's 88-yard TD run in the closing minutes to stand as one of the great moments in program history.

But back in '74, the Spartans didn't go to a bowl game.

In 2001, after Duckett's grab, the Spartans went to a third-rate bowl game called the Silicon Valley Classic.

In '08, after Caper's run, the Spartans finished 6-6 and barely earned a bowl bid.

Those three plays were season-makers. But this one isn't. And that's the difference.

On Oct. 23, 2011, the Spartans wake up this morning with a 6-1 record, reason to believe they are the best team in the Big Ten, with an inside track to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, and a rightful belief and expectation that they have as good a chance to go to the Rose Bowl as anybody.

This coming one year after the Spartans lost out on what should have been their first Rose Bowl bid since 1987, because Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney delayed the eventual suspensions of Ohio State players and the forfeiture of seven conference victories that went with it.

Michigan State was the only team that beat Wisconsin in the regular season last year. Wisconsin was the only team that beat Ohio State. The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl, due to BCS points or something like that. If there had been a Big Ten football championship belt, the Spartans would have won it in 2010.

And if such a belt still existed, the Spartans would still own it, having successfully defended it against Ohio State three weeks ago, and now Wisconsin.

For a third straight game, Dantonio is referring to a victory as "a program win." A few more of these and it's going to be a program season. The next game - at Nebraska - looms as even more important in the Legends Division race than the previous three against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

This four-game gauntlet was expected to be Michigan State's undoing. Many of us thought the Spartans would be a better team this year than in 2010, but wouldn't have as good of a record - because of this portion of the schedule. But it's this portion of the schedule, so far, which has vaulted Michigan State back toward the cusp of the Top 10, with affirmation that Michigan State has the goods to command national respect with regularity.

The Spartans were terrific on Saturday night, but won mostly with speed and finesse at the wide receiver and quarterback position, along with good pass defense on most downs and huge plays on special teams. But the Spartans didn't seem quite as tough in the trenches as had become expected after the hard-fisted victories over Ohio State and Michigan. Now the Spartans will need to respond again, at Nebraska in potentially the toughest task of all, simply due to the fact that a wearing-down process might be underway within this four-game gauntlet. But Dantonio expects the Spartans to get properly revived for the next challenge.

"It's easy to get up when you're winning because you believe that something better is right around the corner for you," Dantonio said. "You think, 'Okay, what could happen next for us?'

"A lot of people talked about this stretch, playing Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska - right now we're 3-0 and we're going places."

The game-winning play was spectacular. But what about the comeback, and the final drive, and the things that set the table for the Hail Mary? What does that stuff mean?

"It means that we have a program," Dantonio said. "We keep talking about that; we are trying to build a program. When you become a head coach or an assistant coach some place, you're never finished. There is always something more that you can improve on. That's what we do as a program. We critique what we've done. We've won 17 out of our last 20 games. We are just going to keep competing, and good things can happen for us. We have things we have to fix from this game."

'We Wanted To Make A Statement'

Cunningham jumped on Nichol's back in celebration when the catch was ruled a touchdown. A few weeks earlier, Nichol vowed to Cunningham that he would be the first to pile on Cunningham when he broke the school's all-time receptions record.

"Our players really, truly love each other," Dantonio said.

"I'm so happy for that guy," Martin said of Nichol.

"I don't think you could write a better story," Cousins said. "Very special. He (Nichol) works so hard and he is so selfless, and it's never been about him. For him to be the guy who caught that pass to win that game, it's very, very special."

"We have great chemistry on this football team," Dantonio said. "We have great leadership on the ground level. I thought we responded in the right way. We took care of business. We said we are going to have a perfect storm. In other words, we are going to have zero penalties. I said, 'No penalties.' It's amazing because we had zero penalties today."

Zero penalties is a "perfect storm"? Oh goodness, be careful. That might offend someone. After all, we live in a state where "Little Giants," if it had been executed against Michigan, would have caused Wolverine fans, media and hobby bloggers to demand a flag for unnecessary bluffness.

Why mention last week's Michigan game? Because the fallout from it had an impact on the way Dantonio guided his team for this game.

After a fourth straight win over Michigan, heading into a crossroads game with "unbeatable" Wisconsin, Dantonio had to stop and ask his players to do one little thing as a side task while setting out to beat the "unstoppable" Badgers - do it without committing a penalty.

"We have been under attack a little bit this week," Dantonio said. "We didn't want to have any penalties. I thought that was in question in terms of how we play football. We've got 50-plus games around here that we played the game the right way and we've never had any problems. So we wanted to make a statement."

Dantonio wanted it because some in this state attempted to smear the merit of MSU's accomplishment last week. MSU had six personal fouls while physically pounding the Wolverines. There were two dirty plays by one MSU player in that game, and suddenly half a state of knee-jerk simpletons wanted to make MSU out to be the Al-Qaeda of college football.

"We wanted to make a statement in terms of how we were going to play this football game and we tried to do that," Dantonio said. "We had to walk away from some things if things started to escalate. I'm glad we won the football game, that's the number one goal. But I'm very, very proud of our football team in terms of how they reacted to what we had coming at us."

Dantonio didn't ask that they do it for him, or for themselves, or for Spartan fans. You know and I know that Dantonio asked them to do it so that the smear-campaign simpletons would have less material on Monday morning. The players came through for Dantonio. They beat Wisconsin, and they did it - gasp! - with hard-hitting, crisp-tackling, sound-blocking class.

Dantonio will tell you that MSU has been doing it that way for close to five years, ever since he arrived. And they've been doing it to the tune of a 17-3 record over the last 20 games.

"Same old Spartans" has become a good thing. Not everyone wants to acknowledge it. And that's fine with Dantonio. He and Michigan State fans have been having many happy Sparty parties without them.

Staying The Course

Michigan State benefited from a fortunate carom to win. But they also earned it.

They earned it with good play design and execution. They earned it with Cousins' accurate arm.

They earned it with Nichol's soft hands. He's been working to hone his pass-catching craft since moving the wide receiver for the good of the team, if not himself.

They earned it with Nichol's physical strength. He hit the weight room hard last year after giving up the quarterbacking life. That was a tough life to leave behind.

This is the same Keith Nichol to whom Tom Izzo made many phone calls in November and December of 2006. Izzo attended Nichols' games as a surrogate recruiter for Spartan football while Michigan State searched for a new head coach late that autumn.

Nichol was Michigan State's poster boy recruit of 2007. He had committed to the Spartans just prior to his junior year, back when it looked like the John L. Smith era still had some promise. He was a highly-ranked, state championship quarterback with a crazy-live arm and fast feet. He was unofficial Spartan property for more than 18 months, up till the time Smith was fired.

Spartan fans, the MSU athletic department, and practically the university as a whole wanted badly for Nichol to remain committed to green and white despite the ugly ending of the Smith era. Instead, Nichol changed his commitment and signed with Oklahoma.

When Dantonio was hired, Nichol was among the first people he called. Nichol didn't answer or return Dantonio's phone calls, not as a means of disrespect, but as a means of making a tough decision a little easier. It was hard enough for Nichol to choose a path which didn't take him to Michigan State. Nichol knew it would have been even harder to do if he had opened himself up to meeting and getting to know Dantonio. It was easier for Nichol to avoid meeting him at all.

A couple of years later, when Nichol phoned East Lansing and said he was interested in transferring to Michigan State, it would have been easy for Dantonio to avoid the calls, just on petty principle. But Dantonio isn't like that. Sure, Dantonio was open to welcoming another talented arm for the quarterback depth chart. But the Spartans weren't nearly as desperate to sign Nichol in the spring of 2008 as they were in December of '06. MSU had Cousins coming off a promising redshirt year, just a half step behind a guy named Nick Foles on the depth chart. MSU didn't have to take Nichol.

But Dantonio accepted him. Foles transferred to Arizona, soon after news broke that Nichol was on his way to MSU.

Most expected Nichol to beat out Cousins for the job. They engaged in a tight battle for first-string QB status which lingered midway through the 2008 season. MSU probably lost a couple of games that year due to the lack of rhythm at quarterback caused by awkward substitution patterns at the position. MSU might have sacrificed a win or two early in '08 in order to make sure it had enough gameday data on which to base a decision to go with ONE quarterback, the right QB, over the following 30-plus games. That decision went to Cousins. It never came via a press conference announcement or press release. It just kind of worked itself out that way. Nichol was good. Cousins was a little better.

Cousins and Nichol didn't dislike each other back then. But they both wanted the job so badly that it created a quiet awkwardness between the two of them. The competition was fierce, yet respectful. That respect and congeniality eventually gave way to friendship and mutual admiration.

Nichol would have been a good QB for Michigan State. But it was best for the program to invest all QB reps in Cousins, from about December of 2008 on. That's when Nichol moved to wide receiver for bowl practice, out of necessity, due to the suspension of six wide receivers in the wake of the Rather Hall incident.

"I want to thank our administration publicly for staying the course," Dantonio said after the game, Saturday night. "They know what I mean by that."

I think I know what he means too. I think he means he is thankful that the administration listened to him when he told them that many of the players who witnessed or were a part of the Rather Hall fight were nevertheless good people who deserved another chance.

Why am I bringing this up? Because Dantonio made indirect reference to it. And because decisions that came out of that situation had a full-circle impact on Saturday night's Hail Mary.

Several happy administrators and major alumni patted Dantonio on the back after Saturday's victory. More importantly, Dantonio feels those same people will have his back, and trust his judgement, in difficult times.

"It's easy to stand pat," Dantonio said. "Very easy in moments of comfort, but ultimately the person is made when you handle yourself amid challenge and controversy and you stay true to your beliefs. I have my own beliefs. I appreciate our administration and their stand with us and we'll move from there."

Dantonio had been in the hometown living rooms of some of those players that were involved in the Rather Hall incident, had recruited them, and sat across the coffee table from their mothers, had seen them grow. He knew them better than any of us. He knew which ones were the good ones. B.J. Cunningham was among them. Dantonio fought to keep him, and several others, when it would have been easier - yes easier - to cast them out of the program, rather than keep them and take the public relations bullets that came with it. Administrators trusted Dantonio, and accepted bullets as well.

In a last twist of irony, Nichol's touchdown cemented Cousins as Michigan State's all-time winningest quarterback. Yet it was Nichol's night.

With his challenges, his journey, his promise, his fall, his acceptance, his commitment to team, his reinvention and underdog rise, Nichol's moment is like a localized slice of George Bailey, with a dash of Mike Eruzione, stuffed with Buster Douglas.

"He's a special player," Cousins said of Nichol. "And he deserves all the success he gets and I hope there's more coming."

Why wouldn't there be? This is only Chapter 7.

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