EVANSTON IL - OCTOBER 23: B.J. Cunningham #3.of the Michigan State Spartans gets a hug from teammate Mark Dell #2 after catching a touchdown pass against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on October 23 2010 in Evanston Illinois. Michigan State defeated Northwestern 35-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Saturday's game, for all its craziness and emotional swings, seems eerily fitting in retrospect. Fair or not, MSU carried the burden of Spartan teams past that handled success very poorly. Northwestern was/is a team which periodically gives MSU fits, and has a habit of ruining seasons. The weather was crappy. MSU lost one of its best playmakers early on. Northwestern kept on converting 3rd downs, and their defensive line played like a brick wall. I had no idea what the hell was going on.
This tweet showed up in my feed midway through the first half:
Yeah man, I knew the feeling. (Never mind that I'm now resorting to using Carles' tweets to help establish a storyline.)
And then funny things started happening. The weather started to clear. MSU's defensive line started bowling over Northwestern's linemen. Cousins--who was bothered by the rain and the Wildcat pass rush in the first half--started clicking with his receivers. This wasn't the unstoppable force comeback of '06; Northwestern pushed back repeatedly. MSU brought the score to 17-14; Northwestern pushed it to 24-14. (Aided, of course, by an inexplicable decision to have Keith Nichol run the wildcat on 3rd-and-9.)
Nothing came easily on Saturday. Mark Dell was cut off by the umpire, preventing a sure 3rd down conversion. Persa converted a huge 3rd-and-7, aided by a generous spot. MSU played into the wind in the fourth quarter. Cousins took a poor sack. I threw my hat on the floor.
And then: the most beautiful wounded-duck pass I've ever seen landed in the arms of Bennie Fowler. Cousins then threws the opposite: a missile strike to Mark Dell to bring MSU within 3. But again, nothing was easy: Northwestern's kicker, who had been such a disaster all season, nailed a 41-yard field goal to increase MSU's deficit once again.
And then, this. My God, this:
Woo! WOO! WOOOO!!! Clutchiest concentrating-est improbable-est catch I've seen since Charles Rogers' highwire act against Notre Dame in 2002. And this one means so much more, obviously.
This game exposed chinks in MSU's armor -- not that we didn't know they existed. The offensive line had its second consecutive poor game. Third down play was poor on offense and atrocious on defense. Dan Conroy missed his first kick of the season. Kirk Cousins struggled when confronted with pressure in the first half.
But Cousins was also marvelous in the second half, and hasn't thrown an interception since the first half against Wisconsin. Edwin Baker grinded out several first downs. Keith Nichol made several huge catches, and Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham were absolutely irrepressible. Bennie Fowler stepped up enormously to fill Keshawn Martin's role. Jerel Worthy and Tyler Hoover were unblockable in the second half. And when the game was on the line, MSU made all the plays needed to get the win. For once, we ripped another team's heart out. Unbelievable.
Many have said that a major characteristic of great teams is the ability to win on bad days. Saturday was a bad day for MSU, and yet, the Spartans are now 8-0, and are now 5th in the BCS standings. The "same old Spartans" reputation ain't an easy one to kick, and if MSU loses in Iowa City on Saturday, we'll surely hear it again. Win or lose, these guys are different. This team has prevailed against adversity and handled success -- and indeed, on Saturday, did both in the same game. Soak it up, MSU fans: this is a special, special team.