Oct. 17, 2010
Not since Hall of Fame Coach Duffy Daugherty roamed the sidelines in East Lansing had the Spartans won their first seven games to start a season.
But when current head coach Mark Dantonio made his way to the Spartan Stadium field from the press box on a picturesque autumn afternoon during the fourth quarter of Michigan State's 26-6 victory over Illinois Saturday, he was walking down the same path as the Spartan legends that have preceded him.
"It was very humbling," Dantonio said of the standing ovation he received near the end of the game. "I sit at the top of this program but there are so many people in this program that makes it work, from the assistant coaches, to the players, to the administration. It really takes so many people to be successful here. One guy doesn't get it done. It was comforting. I'm not sure it would have been like that if it was 15-10, but I love the Spartans and hope to be here for a long time."
Only six times in the storied history of the Spartan Football program - which includes six national championships and six Big Ten titles - has Michigan State started 7-0.
The first arrived in 1913 under Coach John Macklin, when the "Aggies" won all seven of their games. Biggie Munn did it twice (1951, 1952), as did Duffy (1965, 1966). Those last four times ended with national titles.
The sixth time is right here, right now, in the midst of what is turning out to be a magical season in 2010. It has included gutsy fourth-down calls, a powerful rushing attack, a playmaking defense, strong leadership from the coaches and players, and of course, "Little Giants."
After Saturday, it now includes a grind-it-out, physical win over a staunch Illini defense. MSU was held to just 4 yards rushing and four first downs by the time halftime had arrived, and finished with season lows in rushing yards (93) and total yards (294).
No matter. As coaches know best, stats don't win games.
But turnovers often do. And once again, MSU came out on top in the takeaway column, recording three interceptions and forcing a fumble while only giving up the ball once on a muffed punt.
"I was really proud of the way our young men responded," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said, who was on the sidelines for his third-straight game while Dantonio coached from the box. "Needless to say, it was not one of our better-performing first halves. But the true test of a championship-type team is certainly working through adversity, and then when you are backed up against it, being able to answer - and we were really pleased our kids did that today."
With the Spartans trailing for the first time all season going into the half, 6-3, the defense came out wanting to make a play. On Illinois' first possession, Johnny Adams stepped in front of a Nathan Scheelhaase pass and ran it 31 yards to the Illini 16-yard line, setting up Dan Conroy's field goal to tie the game at 6. It was Adams' third interception of the season - and they all have seemed to come at the most opportune times: in the red zone against Notre Dame, on the goal line at Michigan, and on Saturday, when his team was trailing in the second half.
After an Illinois punt, Kirk Cousins brilliantly executed a play-action pass to a wide-open B.J. Cunningham for a 48-yard score, giving MSU its first lead of the game at 13-6. Cousins has now thrown for a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive games, dating back to last year's Illinois game in which he only played a series at the end of the game out of necessity, due to a injured Keith Nichol. Cousins himself didn't start that game with an ankle injury. All told, Cousins has tossed a touchdown pass in 18 of his 19 starts.
Illinois responded to MSU's first touchdown with a big pass play of its own, as Scheelhaase found A.J. Jenkins for what appeared was going to place the Illini in the red zone. But out of nowhere, a first-year player made his name known by forcing a turnover.
The true sign of the health of a program is depth. Enter Darqueze Dennard. A true freshman cornerback from Dry Branch, Ga., his number was called to start in his first career game Saturday, and the Spartan defense didn't miss a beat.
"That was his first start - that is a puppy out there playing field corner in a Big Ten football game," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "He was in there in the Big Ten Conference lining up against Big Ten receivers playing football. We have got ourselves another corner we know for sure."
On this particular pass play, however, Dennard and teammate Trenton Robinson had run into each other, leaving Jenkins open to catch the ball and carve up yardage as he raced toward the goal line. Dennard sprinted down the field, eager to make something happen after his miscue. He caught up to Jenkins at the MSU 20-yard line, lowered his arm with ferocity toward the ball, and stripped it free. The ball bounced on the turf a few yards ahead of Dennard, and he pounced on it.
"I was just trying to make a play and make sure he didn't score, and I knocked the ball out," said Dennard, who also had five tackles, including one for a loss. "I was anxious since Monday when they told me I was going to play. It feels good to be a part of this great defense."
Instead of Illinois potentially tying the game, the game was flipped. MSU took advantage, driving 68 yards for another Conroy field goal to make it 16-6. With the team facing another test of adversity at halftime, the third quarter belonged to the Spartans, as they outscored the Illini 13-0 to take control of the game.
"The thing I wanted to see out of our football team was maturity," said Dantonio. "When you can handle adversity and come back the second half, you show a lot of maturity in that area."
Conroy made his fourth field goal of the game early in the fourth quarter, remaining perfect for the season. His 13-for-13 start is the best ever to a Spartan season, breaking Paul Edinger's previous record of 10 straight to open a year in 1999.
Following a Robinson interception - he leads the Big Ten with nine passes defended (three interceptions, six pass break-ups) this fall - the Spartans put the game way on a 15-yard Larry Caper touchdown run.
The Spartans posted one last stand in the closing seconds of the game, keeping Illinois out of the end zone after it was first-and-goal. The game appropriately ended with a sack, a testament to the menacing defense that held the Illini without a touchdown, a first for the Spartans against a Big Ten opponent since defeating Indiana 31-3 back on Homecoming in 2003.
"That's a good football team, and without looking at the tape, to me, it is the best team we have played to date," said Illinois head coach Ron Zook. "They are a good football team, very solid. We told (our team) it was going to be a physical football game, which it was."
At 7-0 overall and 3-0 in conference play, the Spartans are gathering momentum for a Big Ten title run, attracting national attention for their perfect start. Even actor Gerard Butler, who portrayed King Leonidas in the movie "300," was on the field during pregame to lead Spartan Nation in his famous chant from the movie. Now, as the Spartans remain the Big Ten's lone undefeated team, each week becomes bigger and bigger.
"When you talk about 44 years, I was (10)," said Dantonio of the last time MSU started 7-0. "That's not a bad deal. I feel very, very happy for our players and our coaches to be able to do something that hasn't been done in a while. It gives you great satisfaction."
But as the Spartans see it, they enter next week's game against Northwestern 0-0. It's been the battle cry all season, and there's no reason to change now. Win each week, one at a time. Then add them up at the end.