In Mark Dantonio’s fifth season, MSU football has established a winning consistency, slayed countless demons and provided some unforgettable memories.
By Robert Bao
The so-called “October gauntlet”—games at Ohio State, against Michigan and Wisconsin, and at Nebraska—loomed heavily in the preseason.
Experts looked at the scheduling horror and many predicted that MSU could not survive unscathed; few thought MSU would repeat as Big Ten champions. That pessimism was not diminished by an early-season 31-13 loss at Notre Dame.
Then came October.
First, the Spartans beat powerhouse Ohio State 10-7 in the “Horseshoe,” where MSU hadn’t won since 1998. The Spartans not only snapped a seven-game losing streak but they also nearly blanked the Buckeyes.
Next, MSU survived 15 penalties to beat No. 11 Michigan 28-14—its fourth straight win over its archrivals. Although the Wolverines went on to win 10 games, Andy Staples of SI.com notes, “beating Michigan has just gotten too easy for Michigan State.”
Next, the Spartans faced No. 4 Wisconsin, an offensive juggernaut that one writer likened to “the Alabama team that annihilated the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl.” In a stunning night game with ESPN’s Gameday in town, MSU upset the Badgers 37-31 with a late “Hail Mary” pass that will be forever etched in Spartan lore.
Next, MSU sallied forth to No. 13 Nebraska but looked emotionally drained in its lone regular-season conference loss, 24-3.
Still, weathering the gauntlet with a 3-1 record gave the team a huge lift that ultimately propelled MSU to win the Legends Division. With a 7-1 conference record—including a perfect 4-0 in November—MSU made the first Big Ten Conference championship game in Indianapolis.
MSU’s triumph was sweet vindication for fifth-year Head Coach Mark Dantonio and his staff, who have transformed the football program from mediocrity to sustained success—notching back- to-back Big Ten titles, back-to-back 10-win seasons, four straight W’s over its archrival and two straight undefeated home seasons. It also proved satisfying for the 17-player senior class, which surpassed last year’s class as the winningest ever in MSU history with 36 wins and counting. It was especially satisfying for the senior captains Kirk Cousins, Joel Foreman and Trenton Robinson—players who were not highly-regarded coming out of high school and who achieved far more than their recruiting stars might have predicted.
Cousins emerged as MSU’s all-time winningest quarterback with 25 wins as a starter. He is the first quarterback in MSU history to beat Michigan three times. Known for leadership, he is only the second Spartan to ever be elected football captain three times, some seven decades after the late Robert “Buck” McCurry, who was captain from 1946-48. Representing the players, Cousins gave the keynote speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon that was lauded across the nation and widely shared via YouTube.
Guard Foreman and Safety Robinson, both two-star recruits who blossomed into All-Big Ten players, proved to be mainstays on offense and defense, providing leadership and making untold plays in the trenches and in the defensive backfield. Foreman often played over injuries, including at Iowa, where he helped key MSU’s “revenge” 37-21 win and snap a seven-game losing streak at Kinnick Stadium dating back to 1989. Last year, the Hawkeyes had trounced the league-leading Spartans 37-6.
MSU’s ability to navigate through the October gauntlet enroute to a 10-2 season and the Big Ten’s Legends Division championship was widely recognized. Brian Bennett, Big Ten blogger for ESPN.com, supported Mark Dantonio for Coach of the Year honors. “Most people were predicting a fall-off for the Spartans this year because of that schedule,” he writes. “Dantonio, who was the Big Ten’s coach of the year last season, has done an even better job . . . in 2011.”
The most memorable games this year were the gauntlet wins plus the road wins at Iowa and Northwestern. All of them exorcised longstanding demons and required emotional energy.
The visit to Columbus was significant to Dantonio, an Ohio native who was defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2002 when the Buckeyes won the national championship. MSU put on a tour de force defensive performance, limiting the Buckeyes to 178 yards total offense while recording 9 sacks for 64 yards and 13 tackles for losses. In one memorable play, linebacker Denicos Allen leaped over a blocker to tackle the quarterback. Only a very late touchdown prevented Ohio State from being shut out.
The win against archrival Michigan was yet another emotional contest, given the significance of the rivalry. The Wolverines boasted a new coaching staff, an undefeated record, a No. 11 AP ranking and a Heisman Trophy candidate. For the game, both teams wore special, one-time uniforms—Nike’s Combat Gear for the Spartans, and a retro design with shoulder stripes for the Wolverines. MSU won 28-14 by dominating the trenches and outgaining Michigan in rushing yardage 213-82. The No. 2-ranked Spartan defense remained stout, producing 7 sacks and 10 tackles for losses. “They were definitely more physical,” admits Michigan Safety Jordan Kovacs. “They pounded us.”
In a normal year, beating Ohio State and Michigan in the same season would be considered an achievement. MSU last pulled off that coup in 1999. But in 2011 MSU found itself with a bigger fish to fry—No. 4 Wisconsin, a formidable offensive machine averaging over 50 points a game, would pose a test for MSU’s defense, ranked second in the nation. Badgers had revenge in mind as MSU dealt them their only loss last season.
The game was expected to be a classic Big Ten slugfest and was slated for prime time, with ESPN’s Gameday on hand.
The action did not disappoint. Wisconsin struck early for two touchdowns. Then MSU showed its speed and athleticism, scoring 23 unanswered points with dazzling plays on special teams, including a blocked field goal and a blocked punt that led to a touchdown. In the second half, Wisconsin re-found its rhythm and scored twice to knot the score at 31-31. It was a classic knock-down, drag-out fight.
With just 1:19 left, MSU had one last chance from its own 21-yard line. In a drive during which Wisconsin calle