For Spartans, defense, luck going long way in Big Ten title chase
"I hope that's how the breaks go and it switches this year." -- Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough in March 2013
LINCOLN, Neb. -- If they kept doing the little things right every day at practice, Michigan State players told themselves for the better part of a year, the bounces would go their way. Good fortune would swing in their direction even if they didn't play their best. On Saturday, they saw what happens when a team makes its own good luck.
Last year, Michigan State went 7-6 and lost five games by a combined 13 points. If something could go wrong, it did: A dropped pass here, a fumble there. This season, a dominant defense has carried the Spartans. Michigan State rolled into Lincoln allowing a miniscule 3.47 yards a play -- the gap between No. 1 Michigan State and No. 2 Louisville was as wide as the gap between No. 2 and No. 22. No one had moved the ball on the Spartans. But on Saturday, Nebraska did just that, averaging 6.13 yards a play and piling up nearly 400 yards of offense overall.
Remember those bounces that didn't go Michigan State's way last year? They all leaped into the hands of Spartans on Saturday. Michigan State recovered four Nebraska fumbles -- including three inside the 22-yard line -- and intercepted a pass. To say the Spartans forced all five turnovers would be a gross exaggeration; in three cases, a Cornhusker simply dropped the ball. Nebraska's pass rush harassed Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, and the Spartans struggled to move the ball for most of the game. But Cook and the offense came through on a critical fourth-quarter touchdown drive that featured two clutch third-down throws and another fake field goal with a whimsical name from the people who brought you Little Giants. Even without that dominant defense, Michigan State still rolled to a 41-28 win and a commanding lead in the Big Ten Legends Division.
"We're not going to ignore the elephant in the room," Bullough said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted to. They made some plays on us. ... But we're happy we're winning those types of games. We'd rather be sitting here talking about what we can fix while we're in the winning column."
That's where the Spartans and Cornhuskers differ. Nebraska has the Big Ten's best running back in Ameer Abdullah and an improving defense, but the Huskers will have little to show for that this season. Along with Michigan State, they had an easy Big Ten schedule draw that should have put them in position to win the Legends. Had they won Saturday, they could have. But at home, in the biggest game of the season, Nebraska gave the win away with three first-quarter turnovers that left it trying to climb out of a hole all day. "We didn't lose that game because of a lack of effort or a lack of want-to," Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said. "We just made too many mistakes to overcome."
When this season ends, Nebraska administrators likely will ask themselves whether Pelini has made too many mistakes to overcome. The decision to retain or jettison Pelini won't be easy. As in his first five seasons, he'll probably win at least nine games. As in his first five seasons, he'll probably lose four -- and with a schedule that lacks the degree of difficulty of earlier years. He has kept the program on a wide plateau, but even the best fans in America have limits on their patience. They want the Huskers to ascend at some point, and chancellor Harvey Perlman and athletic director Shawn Eichorst will have to decide whether Pelini is the one who can lead Nebraska off a plateau as flat as the surrounding terrain.
Meanwhile, the Spartans will try to take a next step that has proven perilous. In 2010 and '11, Michigan State went 22-5 but didn't reach the Rose Bowl or any BCS bowl. In '11, they essentially lost the Big Ten title on a penalty for running into the punter. This year, with Fresno State and Northern Illinois fighting to take away one BCS at-large spot and Auburn and Clemson in prime position to take spots themselves, the Spartans know the only sure way to the BCS is to win the Big Ten title. They can complete the first step toward that goal next week. A Minnesota loss to Wisconsin -- highly likely -- or a Michigan State win against Northwestern -- also likely -- will clinch the Legends for the Spartans. Then all they have to do is beat Ohio State, which as of Saturday has won 22 consecutive games.
To beat the Buckeyes, the Spartans will have to make their own good fortune just as they did against Nebraska. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio resolved Saturday that fortune would favor the bold. "You've got to take chances," Dantonio said. "I told our football team at halftime we were going to roll the dice." Dantonio got his chance to walk his talk midway through the fourth quarter. Michigan State led by five, and Cook had recently bailed the Spartans out of a third-and-five hole by hitting Tony Lippett for a 34-yard gain. Three plays after Lippett's catch, the Spartans faced fourth-and-one from the Nebraska 27-yard line. Dantonio, who had a heart attack the night he called the Little Giants fake to beat Notre Dame in 2010, ordered the Spartans to run Charlie Brown.
A fake field goal named after the least successful kicker in comic-strip history should be self-explanatory. The holder, in this case punter Mike Sadler, yanks the ball away just before Michael Geiger's foot is supposed to make contact. Sadler, who said he didn't realize until after the snap that Nebraksa's defensive alignment required him to check out of the play and run a regular field goal, was supposed to run right. (He knew this because the fake in which he runs left is called Lucy.) The 6-foot, 192-pound Sadler wound up running up the middle for three tough yards. "He's one of the strongest guys on the team," Cook said with a straight face afterward.
But three plays later, Michigan State was back at the 27 facing third-and-13. No trickery would bail out the Spartans. The offense needed to make a play. With the Huskers blitzing up the middle, Cook stood tall in the pocket and fired a laser to Keith Mumphrey for a touchdown.
"That's growth when you see that happening," Dantonio said. "Because that didn't happen last year."
The Spartans are doing everything they didn't do last year, and as a result, they've already got two more wins than they had in all of 2012. But they want more. They won't beat Ohio State playing the way they did on Saturday, but if the defense returns to form and the offense finds its groove as it did in the fourth quarter, the Spartans just might manufacture enough breaks to shock the Big Ten and the nation. For now, they'll enjoy a win that, while not exactly beautiful, moved them one step closer to their ultimate goal.
"We could sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or how they hit a few plays. But we won," Bullough said. "That's the difference between being 7-6 and hopefully competing for the championship at the end of the year. That's something you earn in the offseason. That's something you earn each week. You can't put a name on it. You can't put a price on it. It's just something you earn."