It certainly has been an emotional week for the Michigan State Spartans.
Spartan punter Aaron Bates and tight end Charlie Gantt capped off one of the greatest installments of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry with a perfectly executed â€œLittle Giantsâ€ play last Saturday to give their team a thrilling 34-31 win over the visiting Irish.
But there wasnâ€™t much time to celebrate the victory properly. Early Sunday morning, Michigan Stateâ€™s head coach Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack. The nation, not just Spartan Nation, had Dantonio in its prayers. Thankfully, he is expected to make a full recovery.
Despite the emotional-roller coaster ride and outpouring of affection directed toward Dantonio, the Spartans have a task to manage Saturday when the University of Northern Colorado Bears come to town.
UNC recently moved up from Division I-AA and is a team in the rebuilding process, but thatâ€™s no â€œgimmeâ€ for Michigan State. Make no mistake; the Bears are coming to stun the Spartans in front of their home crowd.
There is no â€œquitâ€ in the Bears, who are coming off a 35-21 win over Idaho State. UNC packs a potent offense and has scored 50 or more points in two of three contests thus far.
Michigan State will have to keep Bears signal-caller Dylan Orms at bay. Orms is averaging nearly 200 yards per game and has a stable of talented receivers at his disposal.
The Bears must have not received the memo informing them theyâ€™re underdogs going into Saturdayâ€™s duel with the 3-0 and 25th-ranked Spartans. Theyâ€™re fighters and have embraced the role of spoilers.
And thatâ€™s something UNC coaches feel good about.
â€œThatâ€™s kind of the one thing weâ€™ve tried to instill in the players since Day 1 when we got here â€” play as hard as you can,â€ UNC defensive coordinator Cody Deti recently told Spartan Nation Radio during his match-preview interview. â€œThat takes care of a lot of things on the football field. In some ways; we have plenty of room for growth. Thatâ€™s something we try to hang our hat on.â€
Deti is well aware of the Spartansâ€™ strengths and has spent the last few days analyzing film. The Spartansâ€™ run-game, which is ranked 16th nationally â€” headlined by freshman Leâ€™Veon Bell and sophomore Edwin Baker â€” has Deti concerned. The potential for a Kirk Cousins aerial assault is a reminder of how dangerous the Spartansâ€™ offense can be when running on all cylinders.
So whatâ€™s UNC defensive coordinatorâ€™s game plan?
â€œI think the No. 1 thing; Iâ€™ve been watching them now pretty much all day and last night, theyâ€™re a complete football team offensively in my opinion,â€ said Deti. â€œThey really can run the football.â€
Baker has rushed for 390 yards in three games, which is 37 shy of his total as a freshman. Bell has bulldozed his way for 304. The tandem will undoubtedly produce significantly higher numbers than Larry Caper and Baker did in 2009.
â€œWe know weâ€™re coming into East Lansing to face a very, very talented Spartan football team,â€ said Bears assistant coach and offensive coordinator Greg Peterson. â€œWe know we got a battle and are going to have our hands full. Weâ€™re excited to play this game.â€
Peterson touched on the depth of Michigan Stateâ€™s offense, but his eyes will be glued to the Spartansâ€™ All-American linebacker Greg Jones.
Jones was named the Big Tenâ€™s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and was honored as the top defensive player in the league last season by media members. He is the top-ranked tackler in the Big Ten, with nearly 10 per game, and has the most forced fumbles with two.
â€œHeâ€™s one of the best linebackers in the country,â€ said Peterson. â€œYou know, you love the way he plays with intensity and toughness. The good Lord has gifted him with athleticism, but I like his mental toughness and what he brings. I donâ€™t know if thereâ€™s a better linebacker than 53, Mr. Jones.â€
Both UNC coaches exhibited the utmost respect for the Spartans. Michigan State fans know what itâ€™s like to watch a team reload and rebuild, and thatâ€™s what UNC fans are dealing with today.
Peterson is confident that his team will continue to rise to the occasion, despite claiming just six victories since 2006.
â€œItâ€™s been an uphill climb and an uphill battle, and weâ€™ve got a group of kids that believe that fight and scrap,â€ said Peterson. â€œWe have some guys that can make some plays. Itâ€™s fun to watch them.â€
With the spoiler moniker being placed on the Bears, it will serve the Spartansâ€™ best interest to not let emotions take over. Peterson praised Dantonio, and said that the support the Spartan coach received was touching.
â€œWell I think it says a lot about the heart and soul about Michigan State football,â€ said Peterson. He knows the Bears are going into uncharted territory, and with or without Dantonio, he realizes the Spartans are going to present a challenge.
Â â€œI donâ€™t know if Michigan State needs more incentive to play hard. I say that with all due respect.â€