The silence in the Michigan State locker room on Saturday was eerie. It wasn't just quiet—it was way too quiet. As the Spartans waited for the start of their game against Indiana in East Lansing, perhaps they—like football fans across America—were considering just how wonderfully implausible it was that the Big Ten race and a ticket to the Rose Bowl had come down to this.
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 1987 issue
Other than an occasional muffled suggestion by a Spartan to "kick——," there were few signs of confidence in that locker room—and for good reason. The Spartans are unaccustomed to playing big games. They haven't been to Pasadena since 1966 (an NCAA probation for recruiting violations cost them a Rose Bowl trip in '78), and in the last eight years they have not finished better than fifth in the Big Ten.
Then, just as the silence threatened to become deafening, coach George Perles stepped forward and told his troops, "Men, this game is what you want for yourselves—and what I want for myself. We're talking about muscling them, then mauling them." At which point the Spartans raced onto the field and muscled, then mauled Indiana 27-3. Locker room looks can deceive.
So absolute was Michigan State's domination that after the Hoosiers kicked a field goal on their first possession they failed to score on their remaining nine tries. Credit this to the Spartans' rushing defense—the best in the nation—which held Indiana to 33 yards on the ground. Please, hold the applause. Earlier this year Purdue was limited to minus-18, Iowa to minus-16 and Ohio State to a mere plus-two. "I think we're coming into our own," said defensive end John Budde outside a postgame locker room that was coming to life.
No one could argue with Budde. After all, the Spartans are 7-2-1, with losses to Notre Dame and Florida State, and they haven't done it with offense. While the Sunday papers went silly over tailback Lorenzo White, who ran for 292 yards on a whopping 56 carries, the truth is that Michigan State would be lying toes up in the Big Ten without its defense.
That defense is the 4-3 alignment that Perles used so effectively when he was an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers during four Super Bowl championship seasons. The formation often employs an offset tackle and linebackers who are constantly in motion. When Perles brought the 4-3 to East Lansing, observers wondered how it would work without Mean Joe Greene. The answer is: fine. "Great teams have unique defenses," Perles says. "The Cowboys had the Flex, the Steelers had the 4-3, the Bears had that blitzing 46."
Perles, who lettered one season as a tackle for the Spartans before a knee injury ended his career in 1958, credits his assistants for improving and perfecting the Michigan State defense, and that speaks volumes about the Spartans' return to championship form. For Perles, 53, is a rare bird among coaches: He has no ego. Correct. Do not adjust your magazine. He readily admits that he applied for the Michigan State job in '76 but was not even considered when Darryl Rogers was chosen. He tried again, and failed, when Muddy Waters was chosen in '80. Finally, in '83, after Rogers and Waters both had proved disappointing, Perles was deemed ready for the job. Of course, when a team has won only 15 of 44 games over four years, the job applications tend to taper off.
If he had any inclination to inflate his ego, that humbling selection process put a stop to it. "Look," he says, "we're all phys-ed majors. If it weren't for football, we'd be teaching volleyball in a gym. Football is a simple game for simple people. But we win a few games and we get to thinking, 'Hmmm, I could be a surgeon.' I think coaches need to work at humility."
Heck, Perles is even willing to talk about getting fired. Which, given this season's performance, won't happen soon. But, he says, "If it does, I'll put on my green sport coat, go out there in Lot A, have a glass of tomato juice, eat some bratwurst and then go inside and cheer on the Spartans. Whether I'm coaching or not, I'm not leaving."
And he won't even have to consider it if he keeps perfecting his coaching philosophy, which he summarizes as follows: "Not to lose the game." He's not being flip or snide. Perles doesn't gamble on fourth down, and he loves to run into the center of the line. This doesn't always please the fans. Earlier this year, when Michigan State got off to a 1-2 start, there was booing. "If you don't like the boos, you get rid of them by winning," says Perles. "I hate boos and would hope I never get used to them."
In fairness to the fans, Perles was asking for it. When he came to East Lansing in 1983, he said the Spartans would contend for the conference championship by 1987. The fans noticed that '87 had arrived and that Michigan State didn't seem to be in contention. They turned out to be right and wrong.
In keeping with his don't-lose-the-game philosophy, Perles this year decided not to build his entire offense around White. White's chances for the Heisman Trophy have certainly been hurt by that choice, but the team was helped.
"For him to win the Heisman, I'd have to give him the ball every time," says Perles. "I decided before the season that we would not make any decisions based on him." And understandably so, considering White's history. In 1985 he was gangbusters: 386 carries for 1,908 yards rushing, the most ever by any sophomore. But last year he had nagging knee and ankle injuries that caused him to miss two games and most of four others. Then, in the first three games of this season, he carried an average of only 21 times for 82 yards per game. Pretty fair statistics for most backs, but they're not Heisman numbers. Later, when White was having a particularly ineffective stretch—he rushed for a mere 67 yards against Illinois and 80 against Ohio State—Perles tried other backs.
Conversely, when Perles had White carry the ball 56 times on Saturday—just one carry short of the NCAA record set in 1977 by Minnesota's Kent Kitzmann—it wasn't a last gasp effort to get White the trophy. It was simply that White was running well and the Spartans were winning the game.
Against Indiana, White carried the ball on 12 consecutive downs on one series and 13 straight times over two more series. "I did get very tired," he said after the game. "I really don't know how good I am, but if I'm as good as people say, then I have to try to play good."
Which he did. White's longest run was 21 yards, but he kept hammering and advancing the ball. He scored the Spartans' first touchdown and gained all the yards in the drive leading up to it. Starting on the Michigan State 49, White carried nine times, finally going off-tackle for the last five yards on the first play of the second quarter. With the extra point, the Spartans were ahead 7-3, and they proceeded to maintain their season-long record of never relinquishing a lead. Four minutes into the second quarter, Spartan quarterback Bobby McAllister threw a 22-yard strike to split end Andre Rison in the end zone to make the score 14-3.
Before the half ended, two plays let Indiana know that this was not its day. First, Michigan State kicker John Langeloh booted a 47-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and flopped over for three points. Second, after the Hoosiers had battled to the Spartan 35, Dave Kramme's pass into the end zone was picked off by safety Todd Krumm.
During intermission Michigan State defensive tackle Mark Nichols put things in perspective when he shouted to his California-dreamin' teammates: "We've got just 30 minutes to play, and then all night to party." Said Perles, "Now go out there and play the last half for people you love."
Backup tailback Blake Ezor took the second half kickoff 90 yards upheld to the Indiana eight: Although the Spartans had to settle for another field goal after recovering a White fumble on the one, it was enough to take out whatever starch was left in a Hoosier team that had come from behind in the second half four times this year.
By game's end Spartan middle linebacker Percy Snow had a team-high seven tackles and a fumble recovery; outside linebacker Kurt Larson had six tackles, one for a loss, and a fumble recovery; Nichols had four tackles, two for losses, and a quarterback sack; and Krumm had two interceptions (and a school-record nine for the season).
Although this day belonged to Michigan State, Indiana, under fourth-year coach Bill Mallory, has made huge strides during the season. "We have tried to sell the idea that we are serious about football," says Mallory. Indeed, for the first time in the Hoosiers' 103-year football history, they beat Ohio State and Michigan during the same season. Consider that Indiana had been 0-30-1 against the Buckeyes since 1952 and had lost 15 straight to the Wolverines. Says Mallory, "We had our jaws locked to have a good season." At 7-3, that's just what they've had, and it might have been even better if Kramme had not been forced to step in when starting quarterback Dave Schnell had an emergency appendectomy two weeks ago.
But the Hoosier turnaround has been overshadowed for now by the emergence of Michigan State, which has been propelled by that tough-on-tough defense. Why does it work, George? "The guys play over their heads," shouted Perles amid the bedlam of the Spartans' once too quiet locker room.