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October 09, 2010

It's not a season maker anymore

The Spartans are starting to get used to this. That's what came through very clearly on the field and in the interview room after MSU's convincing 34-17 win over Michigan.

    During the game, the Spartans never seemed rattled, never seemed deterred, regardless of the situation. Michigan came out moving in big chunks and nearly busting some big plays (Trenton Robinson once and Marcus Hyde twice saved possible TDs with shoestring tackles in the first couple of possessions), and the U-M pass rush was getting to Kirk Cousins.

    But this MSU team looked Michigan teams used to look in this game. Bigger, stronger, better, confident that they would ultimately take control. It didn't always work that way for U-M over the years, the Spartans scored some upsets, but in that 30-8 Michigan stretch from 1970 to 2007, the Wolverines won by an average score of 30 to 13. This looked like a lot of those.

    Still, the Spartans have that underdog thing going. It isn't going away with three straight wins. And MSU players acknowledged after the game, Greg Jones in particular, that the 2007 game remains a motivating factor. The way U-M came back and the way the Wolverines rubbed it in (conduct I'd never witnessed before from a Lloyd Carr team).

    "That was probably the worst feeling to have," Jones said.

    Everyone knows what came next, with Mark Dantonio's "pride before fall" speech (including a dig at Hart's height) and two MSU wins in the series. Then came this note from Hart, posted outside Michigan's locker room this week according to AOLFanhouse.com:

    "Nothing needs to be said to get you guys fired up -- after what you guys have dealt with the last two years and the disrespect throughout the country. You get four chances in your life to play this team. What does each and every player want their legacy to be because it starts tomorrow -- tomorrow we put little brother in his place."

    Now, Mike Hart was a great player and he dominated this series as an individual like few have. But doesn't he have anything better to do at this point? It appears the MSU players didn't catch wind of this before the game, but Dantonio was asked about the ongoing "little brother" theme afterward.

    “The only response I have is maybe some day the little brother grows up and at least he can compete with the big brother,” Dantonio said. “Makes it a game every week. So I have great respect for Michigan."

    "We don't really get caught up in the 'little brother' thing," said Mark Dell, one of several offensive players who gouged the Wolverines with big plays. "We just go out and play football."

    And after thoroughly outplaying Michigan, the Spartans did some celebrating. But not too much celebrating. Even two years ago, against a bad U-M team, there was unbridled joy coming from the MSU side. That win did, after all, end an 18-year drought in Ann Arbor. There wasn't much smack talk from MSU players after that, although Roland Martin did let everyone know that the Wolverines had just been "spanked by Uncle Roland."

    After this one, the Spartans paraded Paul Bunyan around and sang the fight song with the throng of MSU fans in the south end zone. They hugged and pumped fists and apparently had quite a reunion in the locker room with Dantonio (who, by the way, missed the first interception of the game as he was being driven to the elevator to head to the coaches box. He said the fan reaction clued him in to the fact that MSU had made a big play).

    But they weren't overly excited, and I didn't see any bad sportsmanship from either team. The Wolverines got off the field in a hurry. The Spartans kept it quick.

    This win was MSU's most lopsided over U-M since a 34-0 blowout in 1967. It's the first three-game streak since then. It makes the Spartans bowl-eligible and makes them 6-0 for the first time since 1999 -- and 1966 was the last 7-0 start. It was a dominating display of offense, with big running lanes, big plays, a near-perfect day from Kirk Cousins, three backs doing the job and eight different guys catching passes.

    It was a surprisingly stifling day for MSU's defense, which held U-M to season lows in every major category, held Denard Robinson nearly 100 below his rushing average, and got the red-zone stops and turnovers it needed. Altogether, it capped the best two-game stretch of football at MSU under Dantonio.

    In fact, at MSU ... since the 1999 season-ending win over Penn State and the Citrus Bowl win over Florida? That sounds about right.

    All that and official entry into the Big Ten championship race happened Saturday for the Spartans, yet they kept it cool. And while Dantonio and his coaching staff obviously deserve credit there, I think the personalities of the two leaders of this team -- Cousins and Jones -- came through with particular clarity during and after what was a big win, but nothing more.

    "We stay classy," Jones said, "and get the job done."

 

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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