Michigan State stops Wisconsin, bleeding in thriller
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Spartan Stadium had come unglued all around him, band blaring, flags waving, fans jumping onto the field, players jumping into the stands.
Referee Dennis Lipski had just declared Michigan State wide receiver Keith Nichol had, indeed, crossed the goal line when he’d corralled a deflected Hail Mary with no time left, giving the Spartans a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin.
With that everything had come undone all at once, an eruption of emotion four magical hours and four often-frustrating decades in the making.
Here was a dream victory amidst a dream season, Michigan State 6-1 now, charging toward the Top 10, charging toward the top of the Big Ten, charging toward the kind of respectability it’s forever sought yet really never deserved.
Coach Mark Dantonio is generally as celebratory as a wet blanket, a man who once defeated Notre Dame courtesy of a daring fake field goal, went home and promptly had a heart attack.
It’s always more with him. It’s always next. It’s always what can get better, which is exactly the way you take a longtime middle-of-the-pack program and turn it into a never-quit, never-die phenomenon.
From the day he was hired in November 2006 he knew he had to change the culture of this place, had to press and press, had to end the mentality that allowed the Spartans to rise up for a single world-beating performance a couple times a year only to stumble and slide to another ho-hum Alamo Bowl appearance.
Yet this was something else, all that pushing and building and demanding, all the heart-attack inducing work on display in a mass show of pandemonium.
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And so for a moment, surveying the circus he’s created rage all around him, against all instincts, he looked around and broke into a smile.
“The next win is always the biggest,” he reminded.
“But, yeah, this one is big.”
Michigan State had long been the kind of program that suffered, not handed out, gut-punch defeats. The Spartans had seen plenty of road stadiums party at their expense through the years. They’d seen their own place turn into a morgue when glory was gone in a deflection.
Just last week MSU had beaten its archrival and forever protagonist (“Little brother,” former Wolverine Mike Hart once pegged the Spartans). In the past that meant they’d lose this game, the hangover so severe anyone could walk in and embarrass them. It happened darn near every time, let alone when No. 4 was in the house, with a Heisman contender at quarterback and eyes on the national chase.
The Spartans were always sunshine soldiers, capable of fantastic and fatal all in the same season, never tough enough to maintain their potential. Then Dantonio showed up, formerly from the staff of Jim Tressel’s Ohio State juggernaut and demanded accountability and consistency and, most of all, faith.
In themselves. In their teammates. In this entire pursuit. This isn’t a roster stuffed with five-star recruits, one that can count on individual genius to bail them out. It isn’t a team that is just going to cruise to victory. It is a group that figures out how to be greater than the sum of its parts by always seeking to find a way to make a positive impact.
So, quite naturally, there was Keith Nichol, lined up at wide receiver on the final play of regulation. He was once a hotshot quarterback recruit out of Lowell, Mich. He’d declared for the Spartans only to bail when Dantonio came into replace the fired John L. Smith.
He could’ve quit. He could’ve sulked. He could’ve stood around and barely cared. Instead he became a wide receiver and now here he was, a fifth-year senior with a wild, bumpy, unpredictable career on the field for the final play of this wild bumpy, unpredictable game.
“This could be it,” he said he told himself, trying to settle down and breathe.
Michigan State had stormed back from a 14-0 deficit only to blow a 31-17 lead late in the fourth. The game was tied, overtime was waiting and all these Spartan fans were tense from all the old days. It felt like it was slipping away.
Keith Nichol, the kid who never gave up, who swallowed his pride, who completely bought into the plan, kept thinking something else:
“This is it.”
A few seconds later, he swooped toward the goal line, a designated trailer on “Rocket,” the Spartans’ Hail Mary play. He saw the pass get deflected, grabbed it and pushed forward, right into a slew of Wisconsin tacklers at the line. The refs ruled him down at the 1. The replay said otherwise.
“Incredible game,” he said after. “Incredible moment, really.”
This was just one guy on one play. It was, in fact, Nichol’s only catch of the game. It may have perfectly represented what has been built here, what has been created, what, Dantonio and everyone else paying attention believes will power this program to consistent heights not seen since the 1960s.
“Play makers,” Dantonio called them and they were all over the field. “Gamers,” he described later.
Instead there is the demand that each player come prepared for his moment to change the direction of a play, of a game, of a season, of the program.
“You don’t know when your time is going to come,” Dantonio said.
Might be on the dramatic last-gasp pass. Might be in the first quarter, when your team needs a perfect block or step-up tackle. Might come during a Tuesday practice, when a teammate needs an emotional lift.
Nichol’s moment will be toasted here for decades to come. It was just one of many.
[More Michigan State coverage: SpartanMag.com]
There was Darqueze Dennard blocking a second-quarter field goal. There was B.J. Cunningham breaking a 35-yard touchdown catch and run. There was Kyler Elsworth blocking a punt and Bennie Fowler recovering it in the end zone. There was Le’Veon Bell with a huge third down conversion on the final drive.
There was, well, there was play after play, by player after player, all from a sideline that never doubted they would win even when the scoreboard or the momentum or the Badgers’ mammoth offensive line kept suggesting otherwise.
“It means we’ve got a program,” Dantonio said. “We keep talking about that; we are trying to build a program. You’re never finished. There is always something more that you can improve on. That’s what we do as a program. We critique what we’ve done.
“We’ve won 17 of our last 20 games. We are just going to keep competing.”
The Spartans have won at Ohio State. They’ve beaten Michigan. They knocked off the presumptive best team in the league, Wisconsin. Up next is at Nebraska, the final hurdle in this month of challenges.
The players were already talking about staying focused so they could win their division and play Wisconsin again in the Big Ten championship. This place hasn’t been to a Rose Bowl since 1988. Most of those years they never even threatened.
That’s the tangible goal now, Pasadena. There are no illusions about national dominance here. The league is enough for now. This is the next stepping-stone. This is the process. It’s about making the magic of this wonderful fall Saturday night, the comeback effort from the comeback program and use to climb higher.
“We talked about having the perfect storm tonight,” Dantonio said. “Honestly, we said, ‘we are going to have the perfect storm.’”
All around East Lansing, all around this never satisfied coach, it keeps raging and raging, bigger and bigger now, no sign of slowing.
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