Surly Spartans look bent on Big Ten contention

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State defensive end Marcus Rush flexed his biceps and struck a pose, inciting the crowd at Spartan Stadium to scream at unprecedented decibels.

Joel Foreman and the Spartans hoisted the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the fourth year in a row.
(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Rush had just flattened Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines’ flickering hopes in the waning minutes of the Spartans’ 28-14 win Saturday. The victory was MSU’s fourth in a row over its despised, in-state rivals.

It’s been some 50 years since MSU has put together such a streak against Michigan.

It’s been at least that long since the Spartans played with such aggression and swagger.

“You have to play this game a little bit angry,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio, whose team looked both ticked off and tough while being whistled for six personal fouls, some of them debatable. “You can’t go out there and think it’s going to be soft.”

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins]

Maybe it was fueled by the funky green, black and gold Nike Pro Combat uniforms. Maybe it was borne of the satisfaction of handing the rebuilding Wolverines (6-1, 2-1) their first loss of the Brady Hoke era. Perhaps it was in anticipation of taking over sole possession of first place in the league’s Legends Division.

Whatever the motivation, regardless of the spark, these Spartans (5-1, 2-0) seem intent on becoming a factor in the Big Ten title race. A non-conference stumble to Notre Dame won’t stop them. Co-champs a year ago, but shut out of the Rose Bowl and embarrassed by Alabama in the Capital One Bowl, they chippily covet the chance to again contend.

Such a run could be predicated on defense. MSU, not LSU nor Alabama, boasts the nation’s top-ranked unit. The Spartans consistently frustrated Michigan’s ultra-athletic, but inept passing quarterback Denard Robinson, limiting him to 42 yards rushing and 142 in the air on a blustery Midwestern day.

MSU sacked Robinson and co-QB Gardner seven times and piled up 10 tackles for losses. They knocked Robinson out of the game on Michigan’s final possession on what was called a late hit by Rush. Linebacker Chris Norman led the way with 10 stops. Linebacker Denicos Allen had 1.5 sacks. Linebacker Max Bullough and defensive end William Gholston played with particular fury. Gholston appeared to throw a punch at the Wolverines’ Taylor Lewan.

“That’s what we try to do, play 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness,” Pat Narduzzi, MSU’s fiery defensive coordinator, said. “Any time you get a win over a top 10, top 11 team, whatever they are, or were, it keeps you confident.”

Edwin Baker and MSU now have their sights set on unbeaten Wisconsin.
(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The Spartans secondary came up with the biggest play, an Isaiah Lewis pick-six of Robinson with 4:31 left that set the final score.

“When Isaiah caught that ball I just said ‘oh my gosh, he’s to the crib, that’s a touchdown,’” safety Trenton Richardson said. “As a defense we are all like one so when he scored, it felt like I had got an interception and ran it in. It was one of the best moments I’ve had since I’ve been here. To seal the deal with a pick-six.”

[More Michigan State coverage: SpartanMag.com]

But there is more to this MSU model than defense. The offense, which struggled its last time out against Ohio State, acquitted itself nicely. Running back Edwin Baker trampled the Wolverines for 167 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins looked more confident in the second half, tossing a pair of touchdown passes to Keshawn Martin on third downs in the third quarter. The offensive line did a great job of protecting its passer, not yielding a sack.

“For the rest of our lives we will walk the streets of this state satisfied,” spat the mild-mannered Cousins, who will finish his career unbeaten against Michigan.

It won’t take long to find out if the Spartans are as salty as they seem. They play host to Big Ten favorite and Leaders Division, ahem, leader Wisconsin next Saturday.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Tom Dienhart talks MSU-Wisconsin]

The No. 4 Badgers have rolled to a 6-0, 2-0 start, crushing the competition by an average of 40.5 points.

Wisconsin edged out MSU on a tiebreaker for a place in Pasadena last year even though the Spartans beat the Badgers head to head. People in these parts have not forgotten the slight.

That should turn East Lansing into Madtown and the Spartans into Madmen next Saturday.

Regardless of the outcome, the teams could meet again in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in December.

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Gerry Ahern is the Managing Editor/Colleges for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Gerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Oct 15, 2011