Oct. 6, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
As a team still searching for an identity midway through the season, Michigan State reached back in its repertoire for something old and came up with something new in its emotionally draining 31-27 come-from-behind victory at Indiana.
The "old" was the never-say-die character trait forged in the heat of battle with plays like "Little Giants" to beat Notre Dame in 2010 and tempered in the triple-overtime victory over Georgia in last season's Outback Bowl.
The "new" of course was true freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who caught eight passes for 134 yards in his debut as a starter - or two receptions and 120 yards more than he had in just three appearances over the previous five games.
Inexperience? What inexperience?
"My No. 1 thoughts after I found out I was going to start was I had to make plays for my teammates," Burbridge said afterward. "Football is football. I just had to go out there and play the game I love. I was pretty calm and relaxed and ready to show what I can do."
Even more important than Burbridge's stat-line, however, was his knack for making explosive plays when the Spartans needed plays to be made after an implosive opening half.
Had MSU, which fell behind 17-0 in the first quarter, continued the trend it set with seven penalties for 105 yards and the inability to stop the Hoosier offense en route to a 27-14 deficit at intermission, it would have started league play with a 0-2 record for the first time since 2007 and dropped all but mathematically out of the Big Ten title race.
No team has ever come back from such a start to win the championship in 115 league seasons.
But then something happened that no one could have seen coming for a team that entered the game with a Big Ten-worst 19 dropped passes.
At first, in fact, it looked like the problems that plagued the Spartans in their first 22 quarters were again rearing their ugly head when, on the series after they cut the Indiana lead to 27-17, Burbridge dropped a perfectly placed Andrew Maxwell pass that would have converted a third-and-5 situation into new set of downs.
With MSU still trailing by 10 early in the fourth quarter, Burbridge, who didn't even see the field a week earlier in the one-point loss to Ohio State, made a play on third-and-10 with a 16-yard catch that moved the ball to the Spartan 45.
"I was thinking I had to get to my landmark, look back for the ball, pick it up when it was in the air and go get it," he said.
In addition to providing the turning point of the game, Burbridge brought to mind the words of author Pearl S. Buck who wrote: "The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible - and achieve it, generation after generation."
In other words, Burbridge may have been the state's No. 1-rated prospect after completing his prep career at Farmington Hills Harrison, but he's still so young, he doesn't know what he doesn't know. The last time he had a game this big, he was leading Harrison to a playoff victory against Birmingham-Seaholm.
"I just had to show up," Burbridge said. "I was open, so (Maxwell) got me the ball."
Suddenly, receivers who had been at odds with the ball in previous games had come to terms with it. Wideout Tony Lippett added to the momentum-shift with catches of 2 and 4 yards, and junior wideout Bennie Fowler came through with a 9-yard pickup.
One down later, Burbridge's final catch resulted in a 26-yard gain to the Indiana 11 and set up Le'Veon Bell's 1-yard stroll across the goal line to make it a 3-point game with 7:49 remaining.
With the MSU defense wide awake from its first-half nightmare and forcing a second consecutive Hoosier three-and-out, the offense got the ball back near midfield after a 26-yard punt. Not surprisingly, Maxwell's first pass was intended for Burbridge, but it fell incomplete.
Then, after Bell picked his way through tacklers for a 15 yard gain, Maxwell threw a sideline pass to Fowler, who used a brilliant spin move to evade the grasp of Indiana safety Drew Hardin and then completed the 36-yard catch-and-run for the winning score.
The synergy Michigan State's passing had been missing finally came about in the most unlikely of ways, considering it was Fowler, the red-shirt junior, who Burbridge replaced in the starting lineup. Burbridge also had a 15-yard catch on MSU's first scoring drive, one for 19 before its second touchdown, receptions of 8 and 11 to help set up a field goal in the third quarter and a career-best 35-yarder a few minutes later.
"We knew what kind of player Aaron is and obviously the coaches had a lot of confidence in him by starting him," said Maxwell, who passed for career-highs with 24 completions and 290 yards on 40 attempts and two touchdowns. "When you see one guy making a play, it kind of lifts the whole team, especially when you see a guy sacrifice his body. Not only does that give a lot more confidence to the passing game, but it kind of energizes the whole team.
"On a couple big third-downs, he went up in some traffic and got it when a huge play needed to be made. Since he's just a true freshman, he's going to keep getting better from here with the more game experience he gets and the more comfortable he gets."
For the second half, at least, it appeared as though the Spartans were back in the patented groove that has led them to so many inexplicable wins since Mark Dantonio took over as head coach in '07.
"That's just the kind of character this team has," Maxwell said. "Obviously, we don't want to dig ourselves into a hole like that, but you're going to face adversity during a long season when a lot of stuff can go on.
"The most important thing for us, and what we realize the most is we just have to keep battling no matter what all game long, and if we do that, usually good things are going to happen for us. It starts at the top with Coach Dantonio.
"He always says it starts with belief and if you can keep your hope and everybody buys into that, when things start going bad you have no choice but to fight back."
After coming precariously close to its first two-game losing streak in three seasons and bombing out of the championship picture, Michigan State is 4-2 and perhaps re-calibrated for the second half of the season, which gets underway next Saturday against Iowa.
"We came in at halftime and made some adjustments, obviously, but more important than anything, we regrouped as a football team," Dantonio said. "We got a big game from Burbridge. We've been talking about him and saying how he can catch the football, and we saw that.
"We just kept playing and persevering, and this was an opportunity to make a statement."
Whether Burbridge provides more action verbs against the Hawkeyes the way he did against the Hoosiers remains to be seen, but he promised he won't be a no-show.
"I'm just going to take day-by-day, work harder in practice and in the film room, and I'll show up on Saturday," he said.