The silence in the Michigan State locker room on Saturday was eerie. It wasn't just quiet—it was way too quiet. As the Spartans waited for the start of their game against Indiana in East Lansing, perhaps they—like football fans across America—were considering just how wonderfully implausible it was that the Big Ten race and a ticket to the Rose Bowl had come down to this.
Other than an occasional muffled suggestion by a Spartan to "kick——," there were few signs of confidence in that locker room—and for good reason. The Spartans are unaccustomed to playing big games. They haven't been to Pasadena since 1966 (an NCAA probation for recruiting violations cost them a Rose Bowl trip in '78), and in the last eight years they have not finished better than fifth in the Big Ten.
Then, just as the silence threatened to become deafening, coach George Perles stepped forward and told his troops, "Men, this game is what you want for yourselves—and what I want for myself. We're talking about muscling them, then mauling them." At which point the Spartans raced onto the field and muscled, then mauled Indiana 27-3. Locker room looks can deceive.
So absolute was Michigan State's domination that after the Hoosiers kicked a field goal on their first possession they failed to score on their remaining nine tries. Credit this to the Spartans' rushing defense—the best in the nation—which held Indiana to 33 yards on the ground. Please, hold the applause. Earlier this year Purdue was limited to minus-18, Iowa to minus-16 and Ohio State to a mere plus-two. "I think we're coming into our own," said defensive end John Budde outside a postgame locker room that was coming to life.
No one could argue with Budde. After all, the Spartans are 7-2-1, with losses to Notre Dame and Florida State, and they haven't done it with offense. While the Sunday papers went silly over tailback Lorenzo White, who ran for 292 yards on a whopping 56 carries, the truth is that Michigan State would be lying toes up in the Big Ten without its defense.
That defense is the 4-3 alignment that Perles used so effectively when he was an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers during four Super Bowl championship seasons. The formation often employs an offset tackle and linebackers who are constantly in motion. When Perles brought the 4-3 to East Lansing, observers wondered how it would work without Mean Joe Greene. The answer is: fine. "Great teams have unique defenses," Perles says. "The Cowboys had the Flex, the Steelers had the 4-3, the Bears had that blitzing 46."
Perles, who lettered one season as a tackle for the Spartans before a knee injury ended his career in 1958, credits his assistants for improving and perfecting the Michigan State defense, and that speaks volumes about the Spartans' return to championship form. For Perles, 53, is a rare bird among coaches: He has no ego. Correct. Do not adjust your magazine. He readily admits that he applied for the Michigan State job in '76 but was not even considered when Darryl Rogers was chosen. He tried again, and failed, when Muddy Waters was chosen in '80. Finally, in '83, after Rogers and Waters both had proved disappointing, Perles was deemed ready for the job. Of course, when a team has won only 15 of 44 games over four years, the job applications tend to taper off.
If he had any inclination to inflate his ego, that humbling selection process put a stop to it. "Look," he says, "we're all phys-ed majors. If it weren't for football, we'd be teaching volleyball in a gym. Football is a simple game for simple people. But we win a few games and we get to thinking, 'Hmmm, I could be a surgeon.' I think coaches need to work at humility."
Heck, Perles is even willing to talk about getting fired. Which, given this season's performance, won't happen soon. But, he says, "If it does, I'll put on my green sport coat, go out there in Lot A, have a glass of tomato juice, eat some bratwurst and then go inside and cheer on the Spartans. Whether I'm coaching or not, I'm not leaving."
And he won't even have to consider it if he keeps perfecting his coaching philosophy, which he summarizes as follows: "Not to lose the game." He's not being flip or snide. Perles doesn't gamble on fourth down, and he loves to run into the center of the line. This doesn't always please the fans. Earlier this year, when Michigan State got off to a 1-2 start, there was booing. "If you don't like the boos, you get rid of them by winning," says Perles. "I hate boos and would hope I never get used to them."