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  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Winter 2012

In Mark Dantonio’s fifth season, MSU football has established a winning consistency, slayed countless demons and provided some unforgettable memories.

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 off ensive juggernaut that one writer likened to “the Alabama team that annihilated the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl.” In a stunning night game witheSPN’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 regularseason 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 fift h-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 Ws 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 aft er 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 oft en 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 deforce defensive performance, limiting the Buckeyes to 178 yards total offense while recording nine 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 seven 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 off ensive machine averaging over 50 points a game, would pose a test for MSU’s defense. 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, witheSPN’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 knockdown, 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 called three timeouts, two of them stopping the clock, MSU reached Wisconsin’s 44-yard line with four seconds left . Aft er all the punches and counterpunches, the Spartans had one more—a knockout punch. Cousins dropped back, moseyed toward the
sidelines and threw a “Hail Mary”Into the endzone. The pigskin caromed off B.J. Cunningham’s facemask into the hands of fellow wide receiver Keith Nichol at the one-yard line. Nichol, who once vied with Cousins to be starting quarterback before changing positions, twisted and turned to get the pigskin just over the line—something that was scrutinized like the Zapruder film in TV replays, finally overturning the ruling on the field.

“Upon further review, the runner did cross the line,” uttered the referee who raised his arms to signal a touchdown while the sellout crowd of 76,405 in Spartan Stadium exploded into delirium.

The uproarious ending will be remembered for a long time. The drama might have overshadowed a bigger story—the steady rise of the MSU football program under Mark Dantonio. Yes, MSU was the “same old Spartans” that last year beat Notre Dame with a dramatic overtime fake field goal, that came from behind to beat Northwestern and Purdue, that beat Michigan four straight and won the week aft er those wins. MSU football was not only just relevant again on the national stage, but also for one moment it lay at the very epicenter of the college game.The stunning win was MSU’s 17th triumph in its last 20 games.

The Spartans could not mount a fourth straight emotional peak, however, and incurred their first conference loss at Nebraska. But they did overcome Minnesota at home 31-24, pulled off a revenge win at Iowa 37-21, trounced Indiana 55-3 and withstood a surging Northwestern 31-17 at Evanston.The close loss to Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium was heartbreaking, but the way the Spartans competed showed the program is here to stay.

As Dantonio says, “We’ll rise again.”

HOOPS ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER—

MSU opened its men’s basketball season against No. 1-ranked North Carolina aboard the USS Carl Vinson in Coronado, CA. Although the Spartans lost 67-55 in the inaugural Quicken Loans Carrier Classic, the game delighted those it was designed to honor—President and Commander in Chief Barack Obama and some 7,000 soldiers in attendance on Veterans Day.For Tom Izzo and the MSU cagers, it was a Final Four-type “memory maker.” For ESPN, it was the highest-rated November college basketball telecast ever.

MSU Athletics Director Mark Hollis, who previously staged world record-setting events—a hockey game in Spartan Stadium and a basketball game in Ford Field—put it best. “I don’t think this is going to be topped,” he says.

MAGIC JOHNSON TODAY

—Twenty years ago the world was shocked by Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s announcement of having contracted the HIV virus.Today, many fans are happy the former basketball superstar remains in good health. “Here I am 20 years later,” says Magic, who served as MSU’s honorary captain in the Carrier Classic.“I’m good for the virus and bad for it,” Johnson muses. “I’m good because I’m doing better . . . On the flip side, people see that I’m doing well so they kind of relax on HIV and AIDS.”

IZZO GIFT TO MSU—

Men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and his wife Lupe and their children have made a $1 million gift to MSU—among the largest ever by an active coach at any university. “My wife Lupe and I, along with our children Raquel and Steven, have dedicated our Lives to (MSU) because we believe in intercollegiate athletics and the positive role it plays in so many lives,” explains Tom. The gift goes mainly to football because, says Izzo, “it truly benefits everyone across the university

CROSS COUNTRY WINS 4TH TITLE—

MSU women’s cross country team captured its second-straight Big Ten Championship at the conference meet in Urbana, IL, in October, marking the team’s second straight title and fourth overall.“This win certainly helps set the program up for years to come,” says Walt Drenth, MSU’s director of cross country and track & field.“It will help put MSU on the radar nationally.” Sophomore Julia Otwell placed sixth with a personal-best time of 20:30, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. Sophomore Sara Kroll and senior Carlie Green also placed in the top ten and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.MSU finished six points ahead of second-place Michigan.

GENE WASHINGTON IN HALL OF FAME—Former All-

American Wide Receiver Gene Washington, ’67, has made the Spartan Stadium Ring of Fame. A member of the 1965 and 1966 national championship football teams, he entered the College Football Hall of Fame on May 17—following teammates George Webster and Bubba Smith. He played seven years in the NFLand made the Pro Bowl twice. The photo was taken at the gala reunion of the 1965 and 1966 teams at Kellogg Center this past fall during Homecoming weekend.

KIRK GIBSON HONORED —

Kirk Gibson, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was named National League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.In his rookie season as manager,Gibson, who starred in both football and baseball at MSU, took his club from worst to first, winning 94 games for a 29-game improvement over last season and its first division title since 2007.

“When an opportunity presented itself to me to be the manager of a ballclub, I had to put my stamp on it,” says Gibson. “And my stamp is what I learned through all my years in the game.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

In the “Game of the Century” in 1966, sophomore fullback Regis “Reggie” Cavender scored MSU’s only touchdown enroute to a 10-10 tie with Notre Dame—a four-yard run in the second quarter. Aft er MSU, Reggie worked 25 years at Chrysler Corporation in sales training. In 2002 he became athletic director at Birmingham Brother Rice High, where he remains today. He now sees a value to the tie. “When the game ended and people sat there like someone had died, it was hard to see that,” says Cavender at the 1966 team reunion during Homecoming weekend. “But we went down in the history books because of that.”