The transformation began in the last week of August, several days before Michigan State's season opener against Oregon. That's when Spartans coach Nick Saban stood in front of his players and gave them a scouting report—on themselves. "You know what people have started to say about the Michigan State program?" Saban asked. "They say we won't compete hard. They say we're not tough. They say we won't be there in the fourth quarter." It was true. The fans had screamed those things, reporters had written them, and opponents had sensed them. Then Saban got even colder: "They say we're soft."
The evidence seemed irrefutable. In the four seasons since Saban had replaced George Perles in 1995, Michigan State had gone 25-22-1. Last year the Spartans pummeled Notre Dame and knocked off No. 1 Ohio State but lost to Colorado State, Oregon and Minnesota en route to finishing 6-6. Every big win was labeled an upset, every bad loss a disgrace. The top of the Big Ten showed no respect, and the bottom showed no fear. "They talk, but they don't play," said one All-Big Ten opponent. Yes, Saban had been dealt a tough hand, with the NCAA sanctions he inherited, with the constant rumors of his imminent departure to the NFL (he turned down the Giants in '96 and the Colts in '97) and with the epidemic of staff departures that forced him to hire eight new assistants in the last two seasons. But the likes of Michigan State are allowed no excuses. Soft is soft.
Trying to find a way to galvanize his talented team, Saban asked the Spartans another question on that August afternoon. "In all the horror movies you've seen," he said, "who is the scariest character?" There was mumbling in the room as the players conferred, and then someone nominated Freddy Krueger, the slasher in Nightmare on Elm Street. Nods of approval all around. Satisfied, Saban pressed on. "Why him?" he asked.
"It's got to be Freddy," said defensive end Robaire Smith. "He'll get you when you're awake. He'll get you in your dreams. You can't go to sleep on Freddy Krueger."
The bait taken, Saban translated: "He doesn't quit, does he? He's relentless. We have to be relentless, just like Freddy Krueger."
Saban's ploy wasn't exactly Win one for the Gipper, but it has proved just as effective. Ask Michigan, which lived a nightmare of its own last Saturday in East Lansing. The Wolverines came into the game 5-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country with victories over Notre Dame, Syracuse, Wisconsin and Purdue. They left with a 34-31 loss made close only by a two-touchdown rally in the fourth quarter. Michigan State's defense held the Wolverines to six yards rushing and mauled them from the start. "They knew it was over when it was 7-0, the way we were beating them up," said Spartans cornerback Amp Campbell. Michigan State jumped to fifth from 11th in the polls, and now it is the 6-0 Spartans who are in a position to make a run at the Big Ten and national titles.
The Spartans haven't been undefeated this late in the season since 1966, when, led by Bubba Smith and George Webster, Michigan State won nine straight before its Game of the Century against Notre Dame ended 10-10. The current Spartans feature superb defensive quickness up front, particularly in the 6'5", 278-pound Smith and in Julian Peterson, a 6'4", 235-pound pass-rushing linebacker. They combined for five tackles for losses against Michigan. Corner-backs Campbell and Renaldo Hill blanketed Wolverines wideouts Marcus Knight and David Terrell, who had terrorized Wisconsin and Purdue. "By the end of the game, Terrell was whining, 'Come on, Drew [Henson]. Come on, Tommy [Brady]. Please throw me the ball,' " said Campbell after the game. "I think I got in his head a little bit."
Campbell is a sixth-year senior who had what was thought to be a career-ending operation on his neck last fall. He's not the only Spartan who has endured. Tailback Lloyd demons, who rushed for 88 yards against Michigan, is also a sixth-year senior, having transferred from Rhode Island, the only school mat recruited him out of Indiana (Pa.) Area High. He spent a winter cleaning vacated apartments—"The worst part was the stuff people left in the refrigerator," demons says—before coming to Michigan State, where he walked on and played for two years before earning a scholarship. Senior captain Gari Scott, a wide receiver who caught five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, is the son of former crack addicts. Scott's mother, Barbara, has been clean for eight years. His father, Gary, got off drugs a year ago. "My name is spelled with ay," Gary says. "I spelled Gari's in a different way because I wanted his life to turn out differently than mine."
On Saturday, though, no Spartans were more resolute than quarterback Bill Burke and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who teamed to make Michigan State history. Burke threw for a school-record 400 yards as well as two touchdowns. The 6'6", 222-pound Burress caught 10 of Burke's passes for 255 yards, which broke Andre Rison's Spartans record of 252. Burke and Burress executed an offensive plan that stretched Michigan vertically and punished the Wolverines' undersized corners, 5'10" Todd Howard and 5'11" James Whitley.
Again and again Michigan arrogantly played its corners, including Terrell at times, in single coverage. "If you don't double Plax, he'll kill you," said Campbell, who often covers Burress in practice. In carving up the Wolverines, Burress caught outs, slants, posts and fades. When he wasn't catching the ball, he was pounding Howard, Terrell and Whitley with vicious blocks. "I'm sure people around the country didn't know who I was," Burress said. "We're not one of those spotlight teams like Florida State. This was my chance to make a name."