Nov. 17, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
Michigan State has had its fair share of program wins under seventh-year head coach Mark Dantonio. The No. 14 Spartans' 41-28 victory at Nebraska Saturday was whatever comes after a program win up the ladder of success.
Not only did they beat the Cornhuskers for the first time in eight meetings dating back to 1914 while completing the Dantonio program's sweep of all Big Ten opponents since 2007, they also clinched a share of their second Legends Division Championship in three seasons.
And with an opportunistic offense taking advantage of four turnovers forced by the defense and one by special teams, and yet another timely fake kick, MSU's seniors triumphed for the 38th time during their careers, making theirs the winningest class in school history.
Its 9-1 overall record and 6-0 conference mark keeps it tied for the most wins in the Big Ten since 2010. And, the Spartans have a league-high 33 wins in conference play over the last five years.
So, what's next for a team that appears to be so well-established, program wins have given way to the next big thing?
"It really speaks to the foundation that we've been able to lay here as people," Dantonio said. "I thought it was a tremendous performance by our entire football team. We've just got to take care of our business and handle success. And, we can't depend on other people. We have to win next week and that wraps it up.
"And then, if you want more, you've got to win the next week and that's the kind of football team I think we have right now. We want more."
More will come in the form of a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis if MSU wins its next game at Northwestern. However, the Spartans are so secure at this point, they'll punch their ticket for a return to Lucas Oil Stadium - they lost to Wisconsin, 42-39, in the inaugural title game in 2011 - no matter what happens in their last two regular-season games if the Badgers simply beat Minnesota.
The next step for a team where MSU is positioned, as far as outside linebacker Denicos Allen is concerned, is toward the exceptional, while not backing into anything.
"This win is even bigger because we had never beaten Nebraska and to come to Lincoln and do it is a huge accomplishment for this team and this program," Allen said. "This is definitely a step higher than a program win because this game had a lot to do with who plays in the Big Ten Championship Game.
"We took a step closer to the Big Ten Championship and a step closer to the Rose Bowl. We're definitely feeling like we have a chance to be something special."
The fact the win came at the expense of Nebraska (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten), a tradition-rich team with as much to gain as MSU did in what was essentially a winner-takes-all gambit, made it even more significant.
And with MSU's top-rated defense not playing up to his nation-leading statistics for the first time all season, quarterback Connor Cook, tailback Jeremy Langford, the receiving corps and the offensive line rose to the occasion to have the D's back, for a change. Oh, the defense produced, and its four takeaways led to 17 points (five total takeaways for 24 points). But, it wasn't the norm we've come to expect from the Spartan stoppers.
From the time defensive end Shilique Calhoun recovered the fumble that ended the Cornhuskers' game-opening drive, and Michael Geiger converted the turnover into a 45-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead, MSU never trailed. Nor, however, did Nebraska ever give up.
As the game unfolded, it was interesting to watch Michigan State's once impenetrable defense give up not just one touchdown for the first time in four games, but one on a 32-yard pass, another on a 51-yard run and then a third on a 38-yard pass, only to have Cook and the offense calmly respond each time.
Furthermore, it was in the context of Cook not even completing 50 percent of his passes (15 of 31 for 193 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions), though his efficiency on clutch passes was astronomical. The Spartans had a remarkable 11-for-21 third-down-conversion rate.
After Husker quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.'s 38-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell cut MSU's lead to six points late in the third quarter, the turning point came midway through the fourth on fourth-and-1 at the Nebraska 27-yard line.
As Dantonio is wont to do at critical junctures in big games, MSU lined up for a fake-field goal dubbed "Charlie Brown" - the Spartans are renowned for the nicknames given to special-teams gadget plays - based on the way Lucy pulls the ball away just before Charlie Brown can kick it the "Peanuts" cartoon strip.
Holder Mike Sadler, who also had an outstanding day punting, played the role perfectly as Geiger swung his leg through the non-existent ball, and then plunged ahead for 3 yards and a first down. Three plays and an ineligible-player-downfield penalty later, on third-and-13, Cook threw a perfect, 27-yard touchdown pass down the middle to wideout Keith Mumphery, whose only catch of the game came in the end zone.
While in the process of increasing their lead to 34-21, the Spartans had Nebraska back on its heels and didn't let up until they had assured themselves of victory.
"That game just showed the character we have," Cook said. "The third quarter was kind of scary, but we persevered. Guys kept working, guys kept chugging and we finished. Two weeks ago we did that against Michigan by grinding it out, and same thing with this one."
If Cook isn't the most unflappable quarterback in the nation when it comes to disregarding his own errors in the heat of battle, he's a close second.
"Being a quarterback, you really can't look at the negative parts of the game," Cook said. "I knew my completion percentage was not good, but the only thing that mattered to me was the play at hand to help my team win.
"Give credit to wide receivers for making some crazy catches on third down and bailing me out."
The way the fake kick and touchdown pass to Mumphery came about speaks to how MSU's offense has evolved over the course of 10 games.
"We worked on it all week and it looked good in practice," Cook said of the fake. "Coming into this game, Coach D said we're going to go all out and do everything we could to win. We weren't holding anything back. Then on the touchdown, it was crazy.
"I looked up at the (play) clock and there was like five seconds left and we had to send a guy in motion. I think (center) Jack Allen just snapped it from looking at the clock, hoping I would catch it because I didn't even give him the signal. I couldn't get a good read on where the defense was at, but saw there were no safeties, realized it was man coverage and Keith was open. I just put it out there for him to make a play, and he made one.
"We're writing our own destiny and if we continue to play at the caliber we've been playing at, more good things are coming."
After the defense forced the Huskers to return the ball to MSU with a punt, the offense sucked the life out of their comeback hopes just at it did against Michigan with another late, methodical, run-dominated drive that ended on a 37-yard touchdown burst by Langford, who once again amended his career-highs for carries (32) and yards (151) and matched his personal best with three rushing scores.
"We feel like we've been playing better since the Big Ten season rolled around," said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. "We're still a work in progress, but when the defense gets you five turnovers, it's hard to not score a lot of points. Even though they didn't have their normal deal, they did get us five turnovers.
"In the second half, we've been able to make plays and then when it comes down to the end, we're able to hammer the ball at people and control the clock to solidify the win. The receivers have stepped up. Those weren't easy catches to make, but if you're going to win a championship, you have to make them. And Connor, he missed a couple of throws we'd like him to make, but at the same time he turns around and makes a great throw. That's him. You've just got to love the way he doesn't get down on himself and continuously comes back."
In addition to raising his season rushing total to 949 yards, Langford delivered the knockout blow to Nebraska at the end of that eight-play, 67-yard possession, just like he did with a 40-yard touchdown run two weeks earlier against the Wolverines.
"The offensive line wasn't tired and neither was I, and we just kept working to win the game," Langford said. "We kept wearing them down, and finally we broke one. It's so satisfying to play keep-away and let our defense stay on the sideline."
As Dantonio inferred, the only way the Spartans can take some of the luster off what they have accomplished so far is by not handling success, not finishing the jobs themselves and taking a step down against Northwestern or Minnesota in the regular-season finale.
"The reality is, we have played for a championship in 2008 at the end of the season, 2010, 2011 and now, in 2013, we will have a chance to play for a championship," he said. "On the last game of the season, it is a Legends Division Championship any way you cut it.
"Those are big positive steps for a program from when we came here. It shows we have a solid foundation, but we need to continue to coach and play up, and continue to climb the ladder. You want to be where we are at, at the end of the season. I think it was a statement for a lot of people, for recruits and for everybody else."
So that's what it was, a statement win.