From “Little Giants” to Big Ten Champions: Spartans Stare Down Penn St. in Happy Valley 28-22, Clinch MSU’s First Conference Title in 20 Years!

Jonathan Schopp
After winning his first (but not his last Big Ten Title) as a head coach Dantonio was all smiles.  Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.
After winning his first (but not his last Big Ten Title) as a head coach Dantonio was all smiles. Photo courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

The Michigan State Spartans are Big Ten Champions for the first time in 20 years! A special season hit its peak today as Michigan State held off the late charging Penn St. Nittany Lions in State College to win the seventh Big Ten Championship in school history.

On a very cold, grey, and windy day, thousands of Nittany Lion fans stayed home, making Beaver Stadium much less imposing than it typically is to play in. Noise doesn’t seem to travel as well through the frigid air, especially when the home team is getting soundly beaten for the first three-and-a-half quarters. The Lions also beat themselves early on. Penn St. came into the game the least penalized in the country, but racked more than a few uncharacteristic penalties on the day as they were hit with 8 flags for 67 yards total.

The Spartans came out with an emotional edge that was clear from the opening kick, and even enough to overcome a late game slip. Coming into the game, it looked like the key would be the battle up front. As Coach D said throughout the week, if you’re going to beat Penn St., especially in Happy Valley, you have to win up front.

In the 1st half, the Spartans did just that, as MSU pounded out 104 yards on the ground, to Penn St.’s 67. The ground game set the tone on the first drive as Edwin “Rock” Baker (So. RB) took the ball 7 times for 40 yards, and a 7-yard TD.  MSU had carved out a nice 14-3 Halftime lead. But this game would ultimately be decided in the 2nd half.

MSU started what looked like it could be the clinching drive from their 48 with about 5:00 left in the 3rd quarter. Penn St. had still failed to find a spark to that point, and was seemingly on the ropes for MSU to knock out. The Spartans moved the ball through the air quickly, as Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Jr. QB) found Keshawn Martin (Jr. WR) and Larry Caper (So. RB) to get to the PSU 36. Given the wind was behind the Spartans, a Field Goal looked possible from that range.

After Edwin "Rock" Baker (So. RB) ran for 4 yards on a 2nd and 10, Cousins found B. J. Cunningham (Rs.-Jr. WR) for 18 yards with about 3:00 left in the 3rd, but a 5-yard illegal formation penalty brought the play back. The Spartans lost a net of 23 yards with the penalty. It looked to be damaging enough to put them out of Field Goal range, and left them facing a huge 3rd and 11 from the PSU 37.

Once again, Don Treadwell and the Spartans went over the middle to a TE, as Cousins found Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Jr. TE) for 13 yards, and just barely enough turf to secure the 1st down. On the very next play, another “Red Shirt” combination connected, as Cousins found Cunningham in single coverage for the 24 yard TD with 1:43 left in the 3rd. MSU was up 21-3, and seemed to have one hand on their 11th win of the year, and first Big Ten Championship in 20 years.

Penn St. fought back with a new found urgency on that next drive, however, and took only 6 plays to cover 74 yards and cut the lead back to 11, 21-10 MSU. The Spartans were 13:15 away from the conference title, with a two possession lead. The game was there for the Spartan Lineman to put away, specifically the Offensive Line.

Instead of reverting to that tired old Spartan tradition of playing predictable and tentative with a lead (see: the Saban era, the “woodshed” era, etc.), the Spartans stayed aggressive, and continued to spread the ball around. They skillfully utilized some trickeration with a Keshawn Martin (Jr. WR) option-pass to Keith Nichol (Rs.-Jr. WR) for a demoralizing 13 yard gain. Once the Spartans got to the 22, they took it to the ground as Baker ripped off successive runs of 7, 5, 5, and 1 yard, to set up a 3rd and Goal from the PSU 3.

But with one last bit of magic, which probably sat in the back of the Spartan playbook for the whole year, Nichol came out to take the 3rd down snap at QB. Would he run for it, option, or throw it? A bit risky? Probably a little bit, but these are the 2010 Spartans. We know this movie by now.

The Lions didn’t know what Nichol was up to. The ex-QB rolled right, saw Charlie Gantt (Sr. TE) coming across the end zone, and opted not to run for the corner of the end zone, but instead ripped it to the Senior for the 5 yard TD pass. It was Nichol’s first TD pass of 2011, and it put MSU’s second hand firmly on the 2010 Big Ten Championship trophy.

The drive went 9 plays and ate up 5:27 of clock, surging MSU back up 28-10 (3 scores) with only 8:31 left to go. From that point, the likelihood of a Penn St. comeback to upset the Spartans’ Big Ten clinching victory was practically “once in a lifetime,” and the Spartan Nation had already lived that experience with the Notre Dame game in 2006. It didn’t seem anything that wacky would be possible again, and especially not with this team.

The Lions moved the ball pretty well on the subsequent drive, taking 10 plays and 2:40 to score after 72 yards against largely a “Prevent” Defense. And again, the Spartans could have intercepted Matt McGloin (So. QB) at least two times on the drive, but couldn’t find the handle. Still, after denying the 2-point try, the Spartans had 5:51 and a 12 point lead to protect.

From their own 17, the Spartans rode the Rock on what they expected would be the game’s final drive, as Baker and the Offensive Line led the Spartans to the MSU 34. Facing a manageable 3rd and short, on what appeared to be the Lions last legitimate hope, Cousins executed another pass to a Spartan Tight End (8 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD for the day). When Charlie Gantt pulled in the 4 yard gain for the 1st down, he added yet another to the long list of important catches he made in 2010 (ex. “Little Giants). It was almost time for the Spartans to organize a Gatorade bath for their Head Coach.

On the following 3rd and 6, from their own 42, Baker got the 1st down yards (which would've been negated by a Holding Penalty), but fumbled as he fought for more, and Penn St. recovered on the 50 yard line. Celebration halted. The Spartans' plan to cruise, as PSU had just used its final Time Out, was about to be rudely disrupted. The Spartans had 2:02 left to defend, and still that 12 point lead.

In hurry up mode, Penn St.’s McGloin (So. QB) found Derek Moye (Jr. WR) for 29 yards to give Penn St. another breath of remaining life. Moye was just getting started, as he played with a fire in the game’s final minutes. Two plays later, on a 3rd and 6 from the Spartan 17, McGloin went to Moye again, who appeared to have the left foot down in the end zone for the incredible TD catch, but barely lacked enough control to count the TD, and cut the lead to 28-22.

After the long replay review confirmed the no-TD call, McGloin fought on and ripped one to Moye again to convert the 4th and 6, for 13 yards. The Lions had 1:11 left and a 1st and Goal. Yet, on that 1st down, McGloin finally threw the INT the Spartans had been looking for all day, as Trenton Robinson (Jr. FS) brought it in about 5 yards deep in the end zone. All he had to do was take a knee, and the Touchback. The Spartans would have the ball at the 20, and the celebration could once again begin.

But Robinson made, without question, the worst decision of 2010 when he decided it was worth a shot to try return the INT from more than 5 yards deep in the end zone. How Robinson thought he would possibly get it through a dozen players, all the way to the MSU 20 (where the Touchback would have been spotted), is beyond imagination. For a team that had displayed more mental discipline and smart play than Spartan Nation has seen in a long time, Robinson decided to tempt the impossible. That decision cost the Spartans dearly, and nearly cost them the Big Ten Championship trophy they already had two hands around.

Robinson got to the 4 yard line, and then had the ball stripped by PSU’s Derek Moye. Moye played as explosive a final two minutes as the Spartans have gone up against in a very long time. Robinson turned the game's “lights out” INT into potential disaster when he fumbled on the 4. He took the game from being absolutely over, to still alive, with 1:01 to go. The Lions regained at least the hope that a “once in a lifetime,” Notre Dame ’06 type meltdown, could somehow repeat itself.

On the next play, the reborn McGloin found Moye for a TD to cut the lead to 28-22, with :56 left. On the Point After try, Penn St. muffed the snap, and had to improvise a throw for a 2-point conversion, which they didn’t get it. Yet, in either case, Penn St. was would still need a TD way to pull off the practically impossible.

Much like the Central Michigan collapse of 2009, it would be up to the onsides kick for PSU to have a final shot. If the onsides kick from Central last year was the best most of us have ever seen, Penn St.’s attempt today with :56 left was rather ordinary. Fittingly enough, it was a Spartan Tight End, this time Brian Linthicum, who dove on top of the bouncing ball to completely secure the Championship victory. Finally, the craziness of the last 2:02 could be ticked off in the “victory formation.” The Championship celebration could begin.

Though the final result seemed hardly in doubt for the last 8:31, Spartan Football once again found a way to make it dramatic. During the program’s abyss from January 1, 2000, until sometime after Mark Dantonio came back to campus in December of 2006, Spartan Nation used to be able to say, “well, if nothing else…we always make things dramatic.” Now, almost four years to the date of Dantonio and his staff’s arrival, Spartan Nation can instead now proudly proclaim, “we are Big Ten Champions!”

The 2010 Spartans, from “Little Giants” to Big Ten Champions...a special team indeed.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

Don Treadwell (Offensive Coordinator) deserves as much credit for the victory today as anyone in the Spartan Nation. He balanced the power run with safe passes over the middle, an occasional try to stretch the field, and very well timed trickeration to keep the Lion Defense off balance for most of the day. Without Treadwell’s proficiency today, MSU would not have been ahead by enough points to withstand the two turnovers in the game’s final moments.

Kirk Cousins played like a Captain and Champion today. With great concern that Cousins would even be able to finish the game, let alone excel, Spartan Nation was thrilled with his 17/22 effort for 152 yards, and 2 TDs. Most notably, Cousins threw 0 interceptions, and was completely not responsible for either of the late turnovers. He led from the front, and when judged by the ultimate stat to measure a Quarterback, went 11-1 for 2010.

Yet, Cousins could not have done the job without the Offensive Line, who stood up and knocked the Lions around enough to hang a respectable 28 points on the board, 168 yards through the air, and 163 hard earned yards on the ground. That's pretty balanced.

Edwin “Rock” Baker is a championship level player. As we’ve said all year, you can see why Baker was a national recruit, coveted by the likes of Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and others. Baker reminded many of Emmitt Smith today, especially early on when he practically took the Offense on his back and set up the bulk of the early Offensive production. Though the fumble gave life to the final Penn St. flurry, Baker again led The BBC (Running Back Firm of Baker, Le’Veon Bell (Fr.), and Larry Caper (So.)) on the day, tallying 28 carries for 118 yards, 1 TD, and of course the 1 fumble. Caper and Bell were involved as well, however, each catching passes out of the back field, and Caper getting 3 carries along the way.

Next to the Special Teams play, and arguably Cousins performance as a Quarterback, this Running Back Firm’s performance is the number one reason MSU won 11 games in 2010, and of course the Big Ten Championship.

Coming into the season, MSU expected to get big time production out of their Tight End position. But through injury and suspension, a unit that was four-deep on opening day was suddenly cut to two, though it was two who were excellent, and still had the potential to be quite effective.

Though they weren’t needed as much earlier in the season, Coach Treadwell saw an opportunity today over the middle to get Brian Linthicum (Rs.-Jr. TE) and Charlie Gantt (Sr. TE) the ball. In the 1st half, Cousins threw to the TEs 3 times for 30 yards. While that might not seem earth shaking, it helped to open up the field, and fueled the Offensive momentum that let Treadwell go deep and wide into the Spartan playbook. For the day, Gantt and Linthicum had 8 catches for 80 crucial yards, 1 TD, and oh yea, Linthicum’s recovery of the onsides kick which finally put out that final Penn St. comeback flame.

Offensively, it was clearly a team effort overall, as everyone on that side of the ball contributed to the balanced and Championship performance. Look for the Offense to have a very big Bowl Game, and an even bigger 2011.

Defense

The Defense didn’t expect to be challenged by a breadth of refined Penn St. talent today, but did have Evan Royster (Sr. RB) to contend with. In his final game at State College, Royster looked to go out with a bang against a Spartan team he has hung some numbers on in the past. Royster is a good player, and put up decent numbers today (14 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD), but the MSU Defense did not let him beat them. They contained Royster, which was essential to shutting down the Lions’ overall Offensive production.

The Defense flat out did their job in the 1st half, keeping an erratic and out of rhythm Lion attack to only 3 points. They carried that momentum throughout the 3rd quarter, until they slid back into more of a “Prevent” attack. The Defense would've had more impressive numbers had it not been for the late Baker fumble, and for the even later Robinson INT debacle.

Jerel Worthy (So. DT) is a very good Defensive Tackle who has the potential to become a “big time” player on a Conference wide or National level. Today, he showed flashes again, on the big stage of playing for a Big Ten title, which gives Spartan Nation encouragement that Worthy will become the first truly dominant interior Defensive Lineman in Green and White in years.

It seemed like the Spartans could have intercepted McGloin at least a half dozen times today, but the cold-hard ball somehow didn’t find a way into Johnny Adams (Rs.-So. CB), Chris Norman (So. LB), or another Spartan Defender’s hands, until ultimately Robinson got one in the end. If the Spartans had picked him off earlier on the day, or even in the final drive, they easily could’ve cruised along without that final chaos and stress test for Spartan Nation.

The Defense came a long way in 2010, and appears to have “turned the corner” for good here in the Dantonio era. While they will lose the arguably best tandem of Linebackers in Spartan history, there’s a lot of very good young players who will come back in 2011 and threaten to make next year’s Defense even better than the 2010 Championship model.

The 2010 Spartan Defense was led by All-American Greg Jones and four-year starter, Eric Gordon. They will simply go down as a Big Ten Championship Defense.

Special Teams

The Spartans would not have gone 11-1 without the clutch performance of their Special Teams. Never has a Special Teams unit had a larger impact on a Spartan team’s final record. There would be no Big Ten Championship without big name plays like “Little Giants,” “Mouse Trap,” Martin’s Punt Return, or “The Block,” and the dozens of "routine plays" that the Spartans consistently made.

Bennie Fowler (Rs.-Fr.) looks to be the next Special Teams impact player for the Green and White, to go along side arguably the best Special Teamer in generations in Martin. Martin should be back at full strength for the Bowl Game, and perhaps will have one more special moment for the year.

Aaron Bates (Sr. P) was counted on today, and made a key punt about mid way in the 3rd, as he pinned the Lions down to their own 15. One “Holding” penalty later, Penn St. faced a 1st and 17 from their own 7. Bates was once advertised as a potential All-Big Ten punter when he arrived onto campus. He very well may leave as much after his Senior season. Though there’s no doubt that Bates will be remembered first for his season making “Little Giants” and “Mouse Trap” passes of 2010, his punting can also be pointed to as a reason the 2010 Spartans clinched a Big Ten title.

Overall

From “Little Giants” to Big Ten Champions, how far has this special 2010 Spartan team has come? Though their development and progression began long before “Little Giants,” that plays clearly stands out as the marker for this season. Everything seemed to take off, and there was a lot of it, from that point. “Little Giants” was the match that lit the Spartans' 2010 Big Ten Championship flame. As ESPN’s Brad Nessler instantly labeled it, it was “the call of the year.” Without the call, and the execution, the season would've looked completely different.

These “Same Ole’ Spartans” are now 23-4 under Dantonio when leading going into the 2nd half, and 9-3 in the "money" month of November. Those are stats you can win with. Though today they again put it to the test late, the Spartans did enough in the first 50 plus minutes to secure the first 11 win season in school history. And for the first time since 1990, the Michigan St. Spartans are once again Big Ten Champions.

To describe the 2010 regular season in one word it would be easy…special.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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