November 13, 2011

DotComp: An unfamiliar level of championship mettle

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Michigan State began to physically flicker in the previous two weeks. But mentally and emotionally, the Spartans' championship pilot light burned bright, Saturday in a 37-21 victory at Kinnick Stadium.

The Spartans played like a champion. Or maybe more accurately, they have learned how to play like a champion, and maybe how to stay a champion.

The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title last year, of course. They were good. They were clutch. They also benefitted from some scheduling breaks. In their toughest road trip a year ago, they were blown out at Iowa.

This year, there have been no scheduling breaks, but instead the opposite. Schedule makers sent the Spartans back to Iowa for a second straight year. And this time, they visited Iowa City a few weeks after the toughest stretch of four games that any team in the Big Ten will face all year. And this time, the Spartans drew upon the lessons and humiliation of last year to deliver some of the best football of the season, and of the Dantonio era.

This coming after their worst eight consecutive quarters of the season, which included an ugly loss at Nebraska and a stale victory at home against Minnesota.

By beating Iowa soundly, the Spartans showed they could cycle up, like a champion.

I expected Michigan State to lose this game. But you'll have to excuse me on that. I'm still gaining experience in how to cover a championship team. I sometimes fail to recognize what a championship football team looks like, through the tide changes of a brutal schedule.

Michigan State certainly didn't look like a championship team last week against Minnesota, coming off the loss at Nebraska. The Spartan offensive line looked like it had lost traction. MSU's tight ends were hurting, and they didn't block well. The defense lacked snap, and looked like they were losing their ability to stuff the run.

What I didn't realize is that the Spartans weren't flickering, they were conserving. Guys like Travis Jackson, Darqueze Dennard and Chris Norman could have played against Minnesota. But if they had, they wouldn't have had the zest that they brought to Iowa City.

Was it dangerous for MSU to dial it down a bit last week against the Gophers? Sure. But Dantonio knows November better than we do.

Nick Saban used to tell us that a team can get sky high only two times, maybe three times a year. Try to do it more than that, and you'll be flat at times when you truly need some punch. November requires punching power. Michigan State had it on Saturday, against a proud program with a strong chin.

After the loss at Nebraska, having completed the four-game gauntlet, the Spartans pulled back on the throttle. I didn't recognize it for what it was at the time. I thought they were running out of gas. But MSU's fifth-year head coach was mixing up a formula that included some Saban, some Tressel, and large doses of Dantonio.

I'm not saying MSU's mild effort of a week ago was openly discussed in coaches meetings or player meetings. Senior Joel Foremanplayed hurt last week in critical moments, and would certainly tell me that he wasn't in on the conspiracy, and I would believe him. But after seeing the way MSU ramped up physically and mentally for this challenge at Iowa, it was clear to me that the Spartans as a whole conserved fuel last week for this task of trying to be the first Michigan State team to win at Iowa since 1989.

I don't think the Spartan players planned the B-grade effort against Minnesota. I think for some of it, it was an unspoken understanding. And then when Iowa week began, they hit the gas, tapped into the championship reserves.

Fire In The Belly

The Spartan d-line whipped a very good Iowa offensive line all day.

The Spartan o-line played its best since the Oct. 15 victory over Michigan.

MSU's ball skills at RB (Edwin Baker[db], [db]Le'Veon Bell), WR (B.J. Cunningham) and CB (Johnny Adams) were sharp, opportunistic.

Kirk Cousins was calculated and efficient in his last chance to wear pads at his boyhood's football field of dreams.

Third-stringers made big plays on special teams (Jeremy Gainer, Nick Hill).

It was a crisp November rising. In the past, we've seen teams from Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan throttle up, throttle down, and then throttle back up again in showdown circumstances, late in the season. Meanwhile at MSU, we've seen teams just try to hold on and become bowl eligible, and then try to put as good a resume together as possible in order to get as good a bowl game as possible.

But now, under Dantonio, November is no longer a month for pretenders. Dantonio is now 11-3 in November as Michigan State's head coach. He made it a point of emphasis five years ago to be strong in November. He has never lost to an unranked team in November. That mark was put to test this weekend in Iowa City. That record is still unblemished.

Meanwhile, a new recird was set. The Spartans' senior class has been a part of 34 wins at Michigan State. That's the most by one class in school history. Cousins wasn't aware of that record until someone mentioned it to him after the game. These records are becoming commonplace.

"With the nature of what Coach Dantonio is doing here at Michigan State there have been a lot of things that are 'first time' or 'best ever,'" Cousins said.

Like last year's 11-win season, the most in school history.

Like the current 13-game home winning streak, the longest since the early 1950s.

Like last year's 8-0 start, the longest since the mid-1960s. But that streak was rudely ruined by the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, 54 weeks ago.

Despite all the winning that Michigan State has been doing, despite being in first place of the Legends Division, despite the fact that Iowa had just as much to play for as Michigan State, the Spartans marched onto the field this time with more commitment and steel-jawed will than the Hawkeyes.

In this game, it wasn't the x's and o's, or the Jimmies and the Joes. It was about the fire in the belly. Michigan State had it all over Iowa.

"They were a lot more ready to play than we were," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.

'We Weren't Losing This Game'

Michigan State's task was to rekindle the savagery that it had on defense when the Spartans beat the Buckeyes and Wolverines, and mix it with some ground-and-pound offensive balance. To get there, MSU coaches tactfully mixed in a pill of bitter remembrance from last year's trip to Iowa City.

The players didn't need to be reminded of last year's humiliation. But just to get a proper bother out of them, MSU coaches flashed the score "37-6" in the players' video homework. Every time MSU players sat down to study film for this year's Iowa game, between every play, that bothersome score flashed on the screen and into their craw.

"Coach D wanted us to remember how it felt to be embarrassed, and to never have that feeling again," said Jerel Worthy.

"Coming to the stadium last night," said linebacker Max Bullough, "we had our walk-through and it kind of reminded guys of what happened last year, the feeling, and the crowd cheering against us, and how devastating a loss that was for us - especially with the position we were in last year.

"I think when we got here, that was on everyone's mind and it took off as the game progressed."

Last year, many Spartans played poorly, but Cousins' three-interception performance - including a costly pick-six - was the most vivid.

In August, Cousins said he was glad that the schedule included a trip to Iowa for a second straight year. He and his pals returned to conquer as if it were the last scene of a bad Bruce Lee movie.

"We weren't losing this game," Trenton Robinson said, as stone-faced and serious as any Spartan football player I've ever covered. "We are in the race to be one of the first teams to play in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. We all want that very bad. Every game, we have to win. We don't want to be down in Florida at the Capital One Bowl."

In five short years, a New Year's Day bowl game has become insufficient for players at Michigan State.

I did not know enough about covering championship teams to recognize that the lull of the previous 14 days was temporary. But I do know enough about covering title teams in another sport to recognize a familiar championship tone when I hear it.

"We practice all these situations during camp, before the season starts, in spring ball, so when we're put in those situations we're like, 'Let's get it done. This is where champions are made,'" Robinson said.

That's straight out of the teachings of Tom Izzo. Izzo didn't mentor these guys but these football players have - knowingly or unknowingly - adopted and reflected many aspects of The Izzo Doctrine. They're champions, bent on making a successful, undisputed title defense.

Back on Oct. 15, at halftime of the Michigan-Michigan State game, with the game tied at 7-7, Robinson walked into the offensive meeting room and challenged his teammates on the other side of the ball to score on their first drive of the third quarter. Robinson was direct and harsh. The offense responded with a touchdown.

Two days later when I told Izzo what Robinson had done, the basketball coach smiled wide. He said he was getting goose bumps, hearing that story. "That shows where his (Dantonio's) program has gotten, and where it's going," said Izzo, who has always preached that the best teams are player-coached teams. These football Spartans have arrived at that level.

Saturday in Iowa City, we saw it again. Early in the game, Michigan State's defensive line discovered that they were better than Iowa's offensive front. The Spartan d-linemen told Robinson and the other defensive backs to focus on stopping the pass, because the big guys up front would be able to handle Iowa's ground attack all day. And they did. They talked big and backed it up.

Later in the game, Darqueze Dennard went to the bench with an ankle injury. Iowa began using star wide receiver Marvin McNutt to pick on Dennard's replacement, Tony Lippett.

With the Spartans hanging onto a precarious 13-point lead and Iowa gaining momentum, junior cornerback Johnny Adams offered a solution. Adams went to the coaches and told them that he wanted to cover McNutt.

Normally, Adams plays field cornerback, patrolling the wide side and whichever players happen to line up on that side. Dennard plays the short side.

With Lippett in for Dennard, Lippett had the short side. Lippett, a redshirt freshman, is lightly-experienced. He is an improving player, but not good enough to cover a future NFL guy like McNutt.

Iowa knew where to find Lippett - on the short side of the field. Iowa began to call formations to force the matchup, and capitalize. That's when Adams asked to travel with McNutt.

"Coaches have complete faith in Johnny Adams and they said, 'Yes. You can follow him around,'" Robinson said. "McNutt didn't get any more catches.

"It's great to have something like that," Robinson continued. "He shut down their best player. Then what else can they do? Because they weren't going to run the ball today."

"When you're backed into a corner," Worthy said, "you can make some unbelievable plays. I think that's what we did today. We had the pressure on us to win and we went out there and responded."

It was one of Dantonio's biggest road wins. The Spartans respected the opponent and understood the moment.

"We are a program now that people are hunting down," Dantonio said. "I think that's something that we need to understand. Last year we were undefeated when we walked in here and we were fifth-ranked, and this year we were leading the division, so we have been the hunted. To be able to push through this year, after the discouragement last year, is a sign of progress and sign of maturity."

This victory did not ensure the Spartans a berth in the Big Ten title game. But it means the Spartans still control whether or not they make it to the conference championship game. They only have to be concerned about themselves. That's the way they want it. That's the way a champion would want it.

The Spartans didn't have a championship-style celebration after this game. Instead, they absorbed it with championship-level wisdom.

"It was like, 'Task Completed,'" Robinson said. "It was a good feeling. We are focused on where we want to get. We want to be in Indy, and we want to play for a Big Ten championship and move forward from that. We are taking it one game at a time, and this game is over, it's complete, it was a big one, it's a good feeling, and we have to get ready for the next one."

Like championship teams do.

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