Early in the third quarter of Michigan State's stunning 49-14 upset of fourth-ranked Wisconsin last Saturday, fans at Spartan Stadium began serenading the visitors with chants of "overrated!" Had the East Lansing faithful not been so caught up in gloating, they might have taken time to sing the praises of their boys in green, who are arguably the best 5-5 team in the nation. "We knew up front we were better and we could beat them," says Spartans right tackle Sean Poole, who kept Badgers defensive end Erasmus James, the Big Ten leader in sacks, away from the Spartans' passers the entire game. "We were confident all week."
Though Wisconsin came into the matchup with one of the country's highest-ranked defenses (first in scoring defense and third in total defense), Michigan State had reason to feel good about its chances. In their first six Big Ten games the Spartans had averaged 31.8 points and 487.8 yards of total offense. Against Wisconsin, Michigan State ran 44 times for 430 yards, gaining much of its ground at the expense of the Badgers' vaunted front four. "People were talking about their rushing defense," says Spartans quarterback Drew Stanton, who returned to action in the second half last Saturday after separating his right shoulder against Michigan, "but we proved our rushing offense is pretty damn good."
The development of the offensive line has been the biggest difference in a ground attack that produced only 90 yards in an embarrassing, season-opening loss to Rutgers. The Spartans haven't run for fewer than 165 yards since and are now 10th in the country in rushing offense at 243.3 yards per game. Also, the line has given up a league-low six sacks this fall. "Week to week, we set out to do that to every team," says Poole, who on Monday became the second lineman ever named Big Ten offensive player of the week. "We just prepared for this game the way we always do."
Stanton, who has been the starter since he came off the bench to lead a late rally in a 31-24 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 18, is another key to the offensive turnaround. The 6'3", 225-pound sophomore is a run-pass threat, averaging 217.1 yards of total offense. On Saturday, Stanton efficiently led Michigan State to four second-half touchdowns, rushing for 21 yards and throwing for 44 yards and a score. "As we started to develop around Drew, that helped us open up the run," says coach John L. Smith. "He's able to move and do all sorts of things, and we can run options and put pressure on the corners."
With the dominating victory, perhaps the Spartans are ready to prove that they are more than a .500 club. "We're not good enough to put teams away in three quarters. We better play hard for four," Smith says. "Maybe today we learned how to finish."