EAST LANSING - On some level, I get the feeling that Michigan State's 31-24 victory over Minnesota came down to a bunch of guys needing and expecting to win against a bunch of guys hoping to win.
The Spartans were the ones needing and expecting victory - and no one embodied that State of Being more than Trenton Robinson and Joel Foreman.
Robinson played big in the fourth quarter. Foreman played hurt.
"We were able to fight through the smoke and come out with another team win," Foreman said.
They are a pair of senior captains with 52 winning starts between them, and they weren't about to start letting Michigan State slip back to past program tendencies. Not on their watch.
"It's college football so any team that can push through and keep pushing usually will win the game," Robinson said.
Michigan State has done a lot of positive pushing in the last two years. The Spartans are 18-4 in its last 22 games and 15-0 in their last 15 games in the state of Michigan.
They expect to win, and after claiming a share of the crown last year and wanting the whole thing this year, they are addicted to it. They need to win now.
Minnesota has a bad record, but the Gophers were pretty good on Saturday. The Gophers were pretty good a week ago when they beat Iowa. The week before, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill claimed the Gophers controlled the line of scrimmage for the second half of the game against Nebraska, and now we can see what he was talking about.
Minnesota is much better than they were a month or so ago when North Dakota State, New Mexico State and Michigan were beating them. Their QB, Marqueis Gray is healthy now, and a different player, and the offense is respectable.
On Saturday, Gray looked like the best opposing QB the Spartans have played all year - including deposed Heisman Trophy candidates Russell Wilson and Denard Robinson.
Beating Minnesota is no great feat. But it is a pretty grand accomplishment to play 27 games without losing to "a Minnesota."
By "a Minnesota" I mean a team that Michigan State should beat.
In five seasons under Mark Dantonio Michigan State has done two things:
1. Played increasingly good defense.
2. Beaten the teams MSU is supposed to beat.
Number 1 led to Number 2.
Michigan State used to be as inconsistent as most other middling programs in the country. When the defense became good, that's when the Spartans began winning consistently.
Against Minnesota on Saturday, for whatever reason, that solid level of Spartan defense was absent for about three quarters.
And when the preferred brand of Spartan defense returned late in the third quarter - in the form of a diving Robinson interception - that's when the new brand of Same Old Spartans resurfaced. Michigan State's defense dominated the fourth quarter, and the Spartans avoided an upset - something they haven't experienced in, get this, 27 games.
Not since a loss at Minnesota in 2009 have the Spartans lost as a betting favorite. And (I just looked it up), the Spartans were merely a 3.5-point favorite as a road team in a night game. Not really an upset.
You have to go all the way back to Central Michigan in September of 2009 - a full 34 games ago - to find a game in which Michigan State was expected to win soundly but fell flat. And CMU needed an onside kick recovery and a second chance at a field goal in the final seconds to pull that one off.
The regularity with which Michigan State has been able to avoid upsets under Dantonio has been remarkable. And because of it, Michigan State wakes up today in first place in the Legends Division. The Spartans are in first place because they haven't lost to a Northwestern, like Nebraska did. They haven't lost to a Minnesota, like Iowa did.
Beating Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin was the hard part. But a team must hold serve and win the winnable games to make the other victories stand up. Michigan State has become that type of program.
Michigan State still gets trounced from time to time, when away from home against good teams. Michigan State is not a great team, not a great program. But that's preferable, in my opinion, to being a team that "loses one game they aren't supposed to, every year."
What other team or program would you rather be in the Big Ten right now?
Ohio State? With the offseason they just experienced?
Nebraska? After that game against Northwestern?
Penn State? With what has come out of that program this weekend?
Wisconsin? With their need to find gratification in running up the score against lesser opponents, but inability to win on the road (or Spartan Stadium)?
Iowa? We'll answer that question next week.
Michigan State looked like a stumbling pretender for three-quarters of its game against Minnesota. But in emerging with a victory - in comparison to its peer group in the Big Ten - the Spartans actually had one of the better weekends of anyone in the conference.
Even the wins are judged on style points now.
Some Spartan fans booed when Michigan State threw short of first-down yardage on fourth-and-nine in the second quarter.
"It's okay," Dantonio said. "I was frustrated a little bit too."
When Michigan State was reminding many of you of what it used to be like to root for the Spartans, the new-age Dantonio Spartans turned it around with the main ingredient that created all of this strange consistency - defense.
"The first three quarters looked out of sync," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "The most average performance of the year. We've been very consistent for eight games coming in, we just didn't play very good today in the first three quarters."
It all turned when Robinson made a play.
"Great players make big plays in big moments," Narduzzi said. "We needed someone to step up."
Robinson Provides Turning Point
Minnesota led 24-21 after scoring on its first drive of the second half, and had the ball back, looking to extend its lead at an increasingly grumpy Spartan Stadium on its second drive of the second half.
"We were on the sideline, we said we need to regroup, we need to come together," Robinson said. "Don't let the score get to us and continue to push."
That's when Robinson came through with his first of two interceptions. This one came on third-and-12. He dove backward, laying out for a difficult grab at the Gopher 41-yard line with 1:27 left in the third quarter.
Minnesota would go three-and-out on its next two possessions as the Spartans gained control of the game.
"Boy, that was big," Narduzzi said of the first Robinson interception. "That was huge. That was a tough catch, a great catch."
Inside The Play
Michigan State had a deep cover three zone in nickel defense on that play. Robinson wasn't one of the deep three. He was part of an underneath three at the intermediate level.
"I was playing hot, reading the quarterback, reading his eyes and wherever he threw I had to try to jump it and make a play," Robinson said.
There were two receivers in Robinson's area.
"He's just playing underneath coverage," Narduzzi said. "He's reading the quarterback's eyes and trying to re-route the seam and get a pick."
"I had to split the zone, kind of," Robinson said.
It was somewhat of a vague assignment. That's not easy.
"Not at all," Robinson said. "But you know we've got to make plays to win games."
Reading Gray's eyes and getting to the ball was the hard part. Laying out and making a difficult catch?
"That was the easy part," Robinson said. "Once the ball goes up and I have a chance for it, I'm going to catch it if it touches my hands. Deciding which receiver to cover was the hard part."
The experience of being a three-year starter, and the expectation of a champion probably helped in both areas.
The interception led to a Dan Conroy 40-yard field goal and a 24-24 tie in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter.
"I'm on the sideline after the field goal and Le'Veon said, 'Get us the ball back. Just get us the ball back,'" Robinson said. "We get a three-and-out, and then Le'Veon breaks one."
That's when it was Foreman's turn to play hero.
Robinson Provides Turning Point
Foreman had been face down on the grass when the Spartans scored on a 2-yard TD run to tie the game at 14-14 in the second quarter. He didn't move for several seconds. Not because something was broken, but because the pain due to an undisclosed upper body injury was so intense that the best way to weather through it was to just lay still and groan.
Slowly, the bald, bearded, gentle bad man got up to his feet and walked, then jogged to the sideline.
Trainers and doctors checked him out. He was replaced in the next series by second-string Jared McGaha.
But six plays into that series, Cousins was knocked down by a pass rusher.
On the very next play, Cousins went down with a sack.
Then prior to then next snap, there was a false start by someone on the offensive line. Cousins spiked the ball in frustration and was flagged or unsportsman like conduct.
Those 20 yards in penalties took MSU out of field goal range on third-and-32. The Spartans were losing their composure.
Foreman put his helmet on and waddled back onto the field.
"I'm a competitor," he said after the game. "I want to be able to go out there and be with my guys. I see them out there fighting and working hard and I want to do the same and be with them. As soon as I was able to go back in, I went back in."
But wasn't he still in tremendous pain?
He wouldn't say.
"Football is a man's game," he said, not wanting to give any scouting information to anyone who may read this. "It's a contact sport, especially in the Big Ten. That was a classic Big Ten game, and Minnesota was playing hard, really challenging us, and you are going to have to fight through some bumps and bruises."
Foreman played the rest of the game.
On the first drive of the second half, with MSU trailing 24-21, when the Spartans faced fourth-and-2 at the Gopher 32-yard line, they ran behind Foreman on an inside zone for first-down yardage.
That drive stalled when Cousins took a bad sack at the 41-yard line.
Then came the field goal drive which tied it.
And then came Foreman's best play of the day on the following drive.
On third-and-1 at the Minnesota 35-yard line, the Spartans dialed up Foreman to pull and lead-block around right end on a 'power O' with Le'Veon Bell carrying the ball.
"That's my favorite play," Bell said.
The guys on the right side of the line, Chris McDonald and Fou Fonoti blocked down (inward), clearing the area for the pulling Foreman.
"I have to credit Chris and Fou; they did a great job getting movement on their down linemen and that just opened it right up and it worked perfectly," Foreman said. "They made it easier for to pull right around there and chip that guy."
Foreman delivered a solid kickout block on the play-side safety. Bell had room.
Bell stiff-armed the last man between himself and the goal line and rambled the rest of the way for a 35-yard TD and what proved to be the winning poitns with 10:58 remaining.
Robinson greeted Bell at the sideline.
"I told you," Bell said.
"From that point on," Robinson remembered, "we just felt like: let's stop these guys. They shouldn't score any more points."
And they didn't.
Minnesota's next drive ended when Robinson made a gutsy, secure tackle of a big tight end on a third-and-7 pass over the middle.
"I was on the quarterback's eyes again, splitting the zone and I was like, 'Tackle the man. Get the man down,'" Robinson said.
Michigan State didn't tackle well in the first half. Minnesota took a 7-0 lead when Gopher WR Da'Jon McKnight broke tackle attempts by Tony Lippett, Isaiah Lewis, Johnny Adams and Robinson.
"The first touchdown was just awful on our defense," Robinson said. "We missed about four tackles. Four guys missed one player."
Michigan State came into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass defense. But Gray threw for 295 yards on 19-of-32 passing, albeit with two interceptions.
"This was by far our worst game in the secondary," Robinson said. "By far. We are not impressed with our performance at all. We gave up way too many yards and that was on us completely, missing tackles and everything. We'll tighten it up.
"We can't have that in the secondary if you want to be a championship team."
They tightened it up in the fourth quarter, for the most part - although the big, shifty, savvy Gray made for a difficult cover as he continually swerved and scrambled and extended plays, making Spartan DBs cover longer than the x's and o's account for.
But on Minnesota's final offensive play, Corey Freeman put just enough pressure on Gray as part of a three-man rush to force a hasty throw. Gray threw outside, but his receiver cut inside.
Robinson came forward to catch the errant pass as if he were fielding a punt, with :12 seconds to go at the MSU 23-yard line.
"Our d-line got pressure and he didn't have a choice but to throw it," Robinson said, "and I was like, 'Catch it, come down with it, end this game so we can go home and be happy.'"
It's become a habit, and an expectation.
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