Nov. 5, 2012
This fall marks the 25th anniversary of the 1987 Big Ten Championship season in which the Spartans went unbeaten in their final nine games to finish with a 9-2-1 record and a No. 8 ranking in the national polls. MSUSpartans.com online columnist Steve Grinczel takes a look back at the memorable season that concluded with a victory in the Rose Bowl over USC.
A ferocious defense.
A great running back.
An outstanding punter.
The three components former Michigan State head coach George Perles believed were vital to winning the Big Ten Championship and playing in the Rose Bowl were in place at MSU heading into the 1987 season.
And with a collection of overachievers acting as a bonding agent, the Spartans:
Revealed their prowess to the nation on Labor Day with a two-touchdown victory against No. 16 USC on opening night;
Had their character tested with back-to-back lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Florida State;
Became case hardened during Perles' caustic halftime tirade in Iowa City;
And made good on their preseason promises by capturing the outright league title and winning the rematch against the Trojans in Pasadena on Jan. 1.
On the 25th anniversary of the completion of the five-year plan he laid out after taking over the program, Perles reveled in its simplicity.
"What I remember about that team is Lorenzo White running the football - toss 38 and toss 39 - over, and over and over," says Perles, who guided the Spartans from 1983-94. "When you're running the ball like we could, and playing defense the way we did and punting like that, you're going to win a lot of games. I always felt that."
The indefatigable White was the centerpiece of Perles' offensive philosophy.
White accounted for 357 of MSU's 700 carries from the tailback position, and with 1,572 yards and 16 touchdowns finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Even quarterback Bobby McAllister was in on the act with 136 rushing attempts to go with his 139 passes, 34 of which ended up in the hands of flashy wideout Andre Rison.
On the other side of the ball, sophomore All-Big Ten middle linebacker Percy Snow led a defensive attack that allowed the fewest rushing yards in the nation, was second overall and eighth in points allowed.
Meantime, punter Greg Montgomery, who joined White and offensive tackle Tony Mandarich as first-team All-Americans, dictated field position with his booming spirals. Montgomery's 86-yarder in the crucial 17-11 victory over Michigan still stands as the Big Ten record.
Perles drove Spartan faithful to distraction when he'd stubbornly send Montgomery in on fourth-and-short inside the opponent's 35-yard line, but he refused to waiver from his strategy of pinning the other team down near its goal line, turning that withering defense loose and getting the ball back on short field via punt or turnover.
"We did that over, and over and over again," Perles says. "We didn't want to gamble on their end of the field and we didn't take many chances. We played by the book and did the basic fundamentals."
Fans may have disagreed with Perles' predictable methods, but the results were indisputable. Michigan State led the league with a staggering plus-14 turnover margin in eight conference games, 265-pound Travis Davis logged a conference-high 11 quarterback sacks from the defensive tackle position, and the Spartans kept Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana out of the end zone.
Michigan State also held the Boilermakers to minus-18 rushing yards, Iowa to minus-16, Ohio State to 2 on 31 carries in Columbus and the Hoosiers to 33 yards in what amounted to the Big Ten Championship game at Spartan Stadium.
All-conference strong safety John Miller, who picked off four of his six interceptions that season against the Wolverines - MSU free safety Todd Krumm topped the Big Ten with nine - recalls that MSU's journey to its first championship in nine years and first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1965 season began in 1986 when the Spartans fell victim to the curse of the three-point loss.
The young Spartans opened Perles' fourth season with a 20-17 defeat at Arizona State, fell to Iowa 24-21, were beaten by Indiana 17-14 and frustrated at Northwestern, 24-21. Despite finishing with a 6-5 record, MSU wasn't invited to a bowl game.
"It was similar to what Michigan State is going through this year," says Miller, a Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant manager in Georgetown, Ky. "We came up short so many times in '86, and we really felt we had a much, much better football team than the record showed.
"Optimistically, we thought we had the nucleus to come back in '87 and have a spectacular season, even looking at the schedule we faced. I don't think anyone played a tougher first three games in the country that year."
If White's running ability was the heart of the team, Miller says the defense was its soul.
"Coach Perles used to say we had so many players on that Rose Bowl team that were never recruited by another Big Ten school," Miller says. "George took a gamble on the type of player that he wanted to come in and play, and that was the gritty, tough, hard-nosed, scrappy type of player and that paid off for us that year.
"Of course, we had some great playmakers like Andre Rison, McAllister and Lorenzo, but that team was about a lot overachievers, and on defense, we had a lot of guys who just loved to scrap, stick their face into the pile and get nasty, led by guys like (outside linebacker) Kurt Larson and Percy, of course. We had an extremely close-knit team and many of us still stay in contact with one another."
As battle-tested as the Spartans were after playing USC, Notre Dame and Florida State, they came precariously close to suffering a third-straight defeat in the Big Ten opener at Iowa. White's rare fumble with 1:32 remaining in the second quarter led to a 27-yard Hawkeye drive that had MSU trailing, 14-7, going into the third quarter. What Perles said at halftime, and how he said it, peeled the infamous pink paint off the visitor's locker room walls in Kinnick Stadium.
"George Perles gave the most spirited halftime speech I've ever been a part of, and that's what turned the season around," Miller says. "The momentum switched to our favor and the rest is history, so to speak."
The Spartans scored 12 unanswered points while defensive coordinator Nick Saban's chargers held Iowa to minus-47 second-half yards to pull out the 19-14 victory, and Perles never had to rely on such tactics the rest of the season.
"Instead of going in there and making adjustments offensively and defensively, I just ranted and raved and raised all kinds of noise," Perles says. "By the time I got done scolding them, halftime was over. It was all emotions and that one time it paid off because I don't think you can make a living doing that. That wasn't my motive beforehand; it just happened to end up that way."
Michigan State took a 5-0-1 conference record into the late-afternoon game against Indiana, which was 6-1 and gunning for its first Big Ten title in 20 years. White dominated the game with a school-record 56 carries for 292 yards and two touchdowns, and the 27-3 triumph propelled the Spartans into the Rose Bowl against USC.
"Including the bowl game, my fondest memory is of that night we played Indiana," says White, who runs the Lorenzo White Foundation, benefitting underprivileged children in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "That entire week going into that game, it was like the whole Lansing community banded together. People in the stores, at the gas station and all over were so hyped for that game, and that made it very special because when we say we're like a family, it was like everybody in the city was one family.
"Because of the energy from everything leading up to the game and during the game, I didn't even notice the carries. I was just so hyped in that moment, really more so than any other time of my career. As a team, we felt whatever it was going to take to win was what we were going to do."
After the game, vanquished Hoosier coach Bill Mallory broke from standard protocol when he entered the MSU locker room and exhorted the Spartans to end the Big Ten's six-game losing streak against the Pac-10 in Pasadena.
"I thought that was pretty neat that the opposing coach who just lost a heartbreaker would come in there and wish our team the best of luck," Perles says.
The Rose Bowl was no less memorable, however. Snow, the eventual Rose Bowl MVP, and the defense held USC at bay by intercepting four passes, but the Trojans tied the score at 17-all in the fourth quarter. A 36-yard pass from McAllister, who was airborne over the sideline when he released the ball, to Rison with 7:41 set up John Langeloh's 36-yard field goal, and Krumm's fumble recovery sealed the 20-17 victory.
The fact that MSU's hunger to return to the Rose Bowl has grown exponentially, Perles says, in the intervening years, being the most recent Spartan team to have been there is a bittersweet distinction for White and Miller.
"Did I think 25 years would pass since Michigan State's last Rose Bowl? No," White says. "The way I look at it, the teams of the last two years should have been in the Rose Bowl, but for whatever reasons couldn't go.
"But that just makes what we did that much more special to know we were the last team to do it. We're talking about some history here and what the '65 and '66 teams did with their National Championships by setting a path for our good season, puts us in that kind of category with the Spartans of today."
Says Miller, "It makes me mad that we haven't been back since. I never thought that 25 years later I'd be sitting here today talking about how we were the last team to go because we have such a better football program than that. Coach (Mark) Dantonio has certainly got the program absolutely the strongest it's been in 25 years and the buzz is back.
"Hopefully, what (MSU) is going through this year really sets them apart with regards to some of the younger players similar to how it did us from '86 to '87. It's just a matter of time before we blow through it and get back to Pasadena."
This feature was originally published in the Nov. 3, 2012 edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine.