Sparty Like it’s 99: Michigan State Football Celebrates 20 Years PART II

Hondo S. Carpenter

Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years Part II

Momentum Builders

After polishing off Eastern Michigan at home 51-7, the Spartans appeared confident and poised for a battle with their national rival, Notre Dame Though not the Irish’s glory days, Notre Dame in 1999 was probably a more respected and credible program than it is in 2019. There weren’t as many programs trying to compete at the top level of the sport, and there was still a mystique and prestige about Notre Dame that has all but faded away in the last twenty years. Still, anytime you’re playing in South Bend in front of a national television audience, it’s a big deal for the program on the other side of the field.

A very memorable moment from this game occurred at halftime. Nick Saban walked off towards the locker room and did a brief interview with the NBC sideline reporter. Some of you probably already remember this incident. The interviewer asked Saban about being the Spartans decent first half effort, to which the coaching legend (in both good and bad) replied by dropping a friendly four letter “S-Bomb” while remarking there was still another half to play. In fairness to Saban, it was a simple language accident, and apparently not malicious, but in 1999 this was a pretty big deal. To his credit, Saban quickly asked the national audience to excuse the slip up. Yet, it is still goes down as one of the funniest moments of 199 ,and a rare comedic moment in Nick Saban’s largely unfunny history at MSU.

The football highlight of that game was of course the pass play that broke the game open from Senior QB Bill Burke to Senior WR Gari Scott. Many remember that play clearly each fall, because of its execution. Scott got free underneath the Irish Defensive Back coming across the middle and then Burke feathered the ball out far enough in front so Scott could catch it and still make a turn up the sideline. As he made the turn, Scott shook off an ND defender with an impressive tightrope-balancing act to stay in bounds. Scott then took off straight down the sideline, separating from the Irish for good and putting MSU out front to finish off a key 23-13 victory. Gari Scott and Bill Burke can probably still feel that play as they look back some twenty years later.

Another stand out effort from the ND came from all-everything Julian Peterson. While the Spartan Nation had been first introduced to him in the ’98 Ohio State upset, the ’99 ND game was Peterson’s national introduction. Iconic NBC lead announcer Dick Enberg was blown away by the pure speed and athleticism of a young Peterson, noting throughout the game that Peterson was absolutely everywhere for the Spartan Defense.

All the sudden the Spartans stood at 3-0 with a mountain of momentum building from the Campbell fumble return and the Scott touchdown catch. Around campus there was a feeling that things were finally coming together for Spartan Football after the past seasons of disappointment. Around the Duffy Daugherty building, the Spartans were eliminating mental mistakes, improving their team chemistry, and perhaps most importantly to Saban and his staff, taking ownership of their football team. This was a team and a football program growing up through the early fall of 1999, looking to compete again on the national stage.

Coming off the big plays early in ’99, the Spartans rolled into Illinois and the Big Ten opener with a chance to declare their interests to the Big Ten conference. The biggest questions facing the team before the season began were on the way to being fully resolved by the Illinois game. Burke proved to be a tough and dependable signal caller who could get the ball to his NFL caliber playmakers like Plaxico Burress, Gari Scott, and Chris Baker. Clemons was proving a solid and reliable runner, and Duckett was on his way to becoming the Diesel battering ram that could bulldoze over the second level of defenders that couldn’t match his size, speed, and agility. Meanwhile, the Spartan defense was experienced and talented enough to mold into one of the better squads in the country. The solid 27-10 win over the Illini had clearly outlined the ’99 team’s identity in place.

That team was loaded with impressive talent and guided by competent coaching. By winning the conference opener on the road in solid fashion, the Spartans were quickly making rumblings around the Big Ten and throughout the nation as a team to keep an eye on. More attention began to turn towards the looming home date with Michigan, which was then only a couple weeks out. Saban and his staff worked harder than ever to make sure their players stayed focused on the next game, which was Iowa. They wanted the Spartans to continue the maturing process by taking care of the business at hand, in that case, the Hawkeyes under new coach Kirk Ferentz, before turning their focus towards what stood to be the biggest home football game in years.

The Spartans did not disappoint against Iowa. The conference home opener was a homecoming to remember as MSU applied a hefty coating of wax to the lowly Hawkeyes, hammering them flat in 49-3 squeaker. Their statement had been mad, their focus held sharp. The Saban era was starting to hit on all cylinders and the results were showing up all across the board. Now it was time to really take stock of where Spartan Football stood as it tried to step up on the national stage for the first time in a decade.

The ’99 team had not looked ahead to Michigan and fallen into a trap game as Spartan teams had often in the years before. Stellar assistant coaching from the likes of future head coaches Mark Dantonio and Bobby Williams, along with help from Grad Assistant Josh McDaniels and Spartan Football staff member Adam Gase, among others, provided the team with the level of instruction and support needed to compete with College Football’s best teams. And Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Ken Mannie’s 4th Quarter Program had then been completely ingrained into Spartan Football as the ’99 team approached their biggest test of the year. It was time for Michigan week.

The Michigan Mid-Term

Many will remember the buzz across campus awaiting the bitter rival and heavy weight match-up between two Top 10 teams. Having lived in the area of campus where most on-campus athletes were housed, it just felt different all week as Michigan State burrowed into rivalry week. Everyone in the state knew what week it was, and everyone in the nation was about to get a closer look at the most bitter rivalry in the country. There was also no doubt the week was bigger and meant more for Spartan Football.

Fresh in memory at that point was the ’97 game, which had that memorable blip of success for MSU in the form of that crafty fake field goal MSU turned into a Touchdown. Far more infamous for Spartan fans of course, was the highlight film Charles Woodson produced that day, picking off what seemed like two dozen Spartan passes. Spartan Football really could not forget the ’97 Michigan game, which was well documented from the inside the MSU camp in a classic Sports Illustrated feature article. The 1998 contest in Ann Arbor slipped away quickly after an obvious flag was not thrown during an early Paul Edinger field goal attempt. Just a few snaps later a long run by Michigan RB Anthony Thomas blew that one pretty wide open in a hurry. To say that the ’99 game was shaping up to be a “program game” was an understatement. It was a measuring stick to see how far this program had come, and how far Nick Saban had come as a head coach.

The crowd back in ’99 was probably louder than crowds of the Spartan Stadium during the natural grass era, at least before the major stadium construction before 2012. I’m no acoustical engineer, but it seemed like the sound reverberated more off the hard Astroturf than it does off the natural grass. Maybe the grass and soil seem absorb more sound than they reflect. This was noticed from both the field level and the stands, but perhaps a noise expert out there can clear it up before the youth of today say that’s just old people talking about old times, again. The ’99 Michigan crowd was as intense and noisy as any I can remember in my seventy-five games in Spartan Stadium. It had an impact on the outcome.

In 1999, Michigan Football was barely more than a season separated from a National Championship. The Wolverines were loaded with NFL prospects, top end coaches, and more than a little traditional maize and blue arrogance. But MSU felt from the beginning of the ’99 game that they could beat the Wolverines. They knew they could, and had pointed towards that game, without obsessing about it, for a long time. That Michigan game was just a much a measuring stick to Saban as it has become to his eventual successor in Mark Dantonio. MSU had designed trick plays and running attacks specifically to attack the staunch Wolverine defense. They had also designed blitz schemes and coverage packages to shut down the Wolverine passing game, no matter which QB was under center. If you remember, they had expected NFL and College Football Hall of Famer Drew Henson under center, and Tom Brady.

The game certainly lived up to expectations, and is probably among the very best of the 111 games the sibling institutions have played. The Spartans importantly got off to a strong start as Bill Burke was sharp, and Plaxico Burress established himself as a physically dominant force that could not be stopped or covered well. After Burress caught a deep ball off well-executed flea flicker early in the game, he didn’t look back. And the Wolverines failed attempt to put WR David Terrell on Burress as a defender seemed desperate, and telling. Anyone in the Spartan Nation that didn’t know the name Plaxico Burress up to that point certainly knew him after that game as the big man from the Tidewater Region of Virginia went for a then school record 255 yards and a touchdown in the Spartans’ 34-31 victory.

A memorable moment from the ’99 Michigan game actually came at the end of the first half when the Wolverines trotted Hayden Epstein out to attempt a 56 yarder directly into a firm breeze coming out of the south end zone. It seemed like it was a fake from the get go. Nick Saban commented on his coaching show the next week that the Spartan staff thought it had to be a fake due to the distance and conditions. Twenty years later, all credit remains to Epstein for his booming rifle shot through the uprights, leaving Spartan Stadium quite surprised. It still stands as one of the most impressive kicks in Spartan Stadium history.

The ’99 Michigan game has always stood out as a game that didn’t seem as close as the final score. Lloyd Carr decided to rotate Quarterbacks that day, mixing in the Freshman golden boy Henson with the Senior, Tom Brady. That plan didn’t work well for Carr. Henson came in the game, got chased around early, banged up often, and was left rattled and dazed for the duration. He couldn’t handle the intense Spartans pressure. Just got check the You Tube highlights that still seem fresh.

The rotation and Spartan pressure kept the Wolverine offense out of rhythm, and probably did permanent damage to Henson’s confidence, which never reached the level needed to be a good starting Quarterback in the Big Ten, let alone a great one. When you look at the clips of this game you’ll see what happens after Henson barely collects a snap before the Spartan defense gives him a close look at the Spartan Stadium turf. The ‘99 game changed for good when Henson scrambled from a tremendous rush late in the 3rd Quarter, but was then picked off by DB Aric Morris deep in Michigan territory. Three plays later, Burke found Burress wide open in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown and a 27-10 lead with 3:02 left in the quarter. The game seemed all but locked up for good at that point.

The Spartans had the edge and controlled the ’99 game from the outset. The outcome seemed all but certain heading into the 4th Quarter when Michigan finally got out of their own way and began to take what the Spartan’s stingy defense would give them. Then it got more interesting, though never out of MSU’s control. After Lloyd Carr realized his young QB was in over his head, he put Brady back on the field for good and Michigan began to move the ball with what seemed like a thousand flat passes and screens to Wide Receivers. Those simple but effective plays began to move Michigan down the field quickly, trying to scratch their way back into the game. But MSU continued to counter the Wolverines’ scoring drives well enough to end with a satisfying 34-31 victory over a very good Michigan team. The ’99 team passed their Mid-Term. This Spartan Football was for real.

The Spartans were half way through the ’99 season and rolling at a pace that hadn’t been seen around East Lansing for decades. The cobwebs and booby traps that tripped up the program earlier in the 90s had finally seemed a thing of the past. The Spartans were 6-0, atop the Big Ten Conference, and ranked 5th in the nation. They just beat a Top 10 team in convincing fashion, who also doubled as their closest rival. The momentum of the program was compounding by the week. Spartan Nation was beginning to believe in this team and starting to talk openly and seriously about the Rose Bowl and New Year’s plans for the first time in the Cable TV era. Spartan Football had finally turned the corner Nick Saban had been trying to make since he came back from Cleveland, and MSU was back on College Football’s national map.

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