The transformation began in the last week of August, several
days before Michigan State's season opener against Oregon.
That's when Spartans coach Nick Saban stood in front of his
players and gave them a scouting report--on themselves. "You
know what people have started to say about the Michigan State
program?" Saban asked. "They say we won't compete hard. They say
we're not tough. They say we won't be there in the fourth
quarter." It was true. The fans had screamed those things,
reporters had written them, and opponents had sensed them. Then
Saban got even colder: "They say we're soft."
The evidence seemed irrefutable. In the four seasons since Saban
had replaced George Perles in 1995, Michigan State had gone
25-22-1. Last year the Spartans pummeled Notre Dame and knocked
off No. 1 Ohio State but lost to Colorado State, Oregon and
Minnesota en route to finishing 6-6. Every big win was labeled
an upset, every bad loss a disgrace. The top of the Big Ten
showed no respect, and the bottom showed no fear. "They talk,
but they don't play," said one All-Big Ten opponent. Yes, Saban
had been dealt a tough hand, with the NCAA sanctions he
inherited, with the constant rumors of his imminent departure to
the NFL (he turned down the Giants in '96 and the Colts in '97)
and with the epidemic of staff departures that forced him to
hire eight new assistants in the last two seasons. But the likes
of Michigan State are allowed no excuses. Soft is soft.
Trying to find a way to galvanize his talented team, Saban asked
the Spartans another question on that August afternoon. "In all
the horror movies you've seen," he said, "who is the scariest
character?" There was mumbling in the room as the players
conferred, and then someone nominated Freddy Krueger, the
slasher in Nightmare on Elm Street. Nods of approval all around.
Satisfied, Saban pressed on. "Why him?" he asked.
"It's got to be Freddy," said defensive end Robaire Smith.
"He'll get you when you're awake. He'll get you in your dreams.
You can't go to sleep on Freddy Krueger."
The bait taken, Saban translated: "He doesn't quit, does he?
He's relentless. We have to be relentless, just like Freddy
Saban's ploy wasn't exactly Win one for the Gipper, but it has
proved just as effective. Ask Michigan, which lived a nightmare
of its own last Saturday in East Lansing. The Wolverines came
into the game 5-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country with victories
over Notre Dame, Syracuse, Wisconsin and Purdue. They left with
a 34-31 loss made close only by a two-touchdown rally in the
fourth quarter. Michigan State's defense held the Wolverines to
six yards rushing and mauled them from the start. "They knew it
was over when it was 7-0, the way we were beating them up," said
Spartans cornerback Amp Campbell. Michigan State jumped to fifth
from 11th in the polls, and now it is the 6-0 Spartans who are
in a position to make a run at the Big Ten and national titles.
The Spartans haven't been undefeated this late in the season
since 1966, when, led by Bubba Smith and George Webster,
Michigan State won nine straight before its Game of the Century
against Notre Dame ended 10-10. The current Spartans feature
superb defensive quickness up front, particularly in the 6'5",
278-pound Smith and in Julian Peterson, a 6'4", 235-pound
pass-rushing linebacker. They combined for five tackles for
losses against Michigan. Cornerbacks Campbell and Renaldo Hill
blanketed Wolverines wideouts Marcus Knight and David Terrell,
who had terrorized Wisconsin and Purdue. "By the end of the
game, Terrell was whining, 'Come on, Drew [Henson]. Come on,
Tommy [Brady]. Please throw me the ball,'" said Campbell after
the game. "I think I got in his head a little bit."
Campbell is a sixth-year senior who had what was thought to be a
career-ending operation on his neck last fall. He's not the only
Spartan who has endured. Tailback Lloyd Clemons, who rushed for
88 yards against Michigan, is also a sixth-year senior, having
transferred from Rhode Island, the only school that recruited
him out of Indiana (Pa.) Area High. He spent a winter cleaning
vacated apartments--"The worst part was the stuff people left in
the refrigerator," Clemons says--before coming to Michigan
State, where he walked on and played for two years before
earning a scholarship. Senior captain Gari Scott, a wide
receiver who caught five passes for 76 yards and a touchdown on
Saturday, is the son of former crack addicts. Scott's mother,
Barbara, has been clean for eight years. His father, Gary, got
off drugs a year ago. "My name is spelled with a y," Gary says.
"I spelled Gari's in a different way because I wanted his life
to turn out differently than mine."
On Saturday, though, no Spartans were more resolute than
quarterback Bill Burke and wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who
teamed to make Michigan State history. Burke threw for a
school-record 400 yards as well as two touchdowns. The 6'6",
222-pound Burress caught 10 of Burke's passes for 255 yards,
which broke Andre Rison's Spartans record of 252. Burke and
Burress executed an offensive plan that stretched Michigan
vertically and punished the Wolverines' undersized corners,
5'10" Todd Howard and 5'11" James Whitley.
Again and again Michigan arrogantly played its corners,
including Terrell at times, in single coverage. "If you don't
double Plax, he'll kill you," said Campbell, who often covers
Burress in practice. In carving up the Wolverines, Burress
caught outs, slants, posts and fades. When he wasn't catching
the ball, he was pounding Howard, Terrell and Whitley with
vicious blocks. "I'm sure people around the country didn't know
who I was," Burress said. "We're not one of those spotlight
teams like Florida State. This was my chance to make a name."
At Green Run High in Virginia Beach, Burress was a standout in
football, basketball and track, but because of poor SAT scores
he enrolled for a postgraduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military
Academy. The freewheeling Burress hated every minute he spent
there. "People blowing horns, busting your door open at 5:30 in
the morning, making you shine your shoes all the time, that's
not for me," he says. Burress dropped out after five months and
entered Michigan State, though he was ineligible to play. After
sitting out the spring and fall of 1997, Burress's first
appearance was in Michigan State's 1998 spring game, in which he
caught 13 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. "Plax is
the best receiver I've ever coached," says Charlie Baggett, the
Green Bay Packers' assistant who also coached Rison, Courtney
Hawkins and Mark Ingram, among others, when he was at Michigan
Burress was named by his mother, Adelaide, a single parent,
after an uncle who served in Vietnam. She has told him that
Plaxico means survivor, which makes him just one of the guys on
these Spartans. Burke is a survivor, too, the classic case of a
quarterback who has risen to excellence through maturity and
perseverance. As a freshman and sophomore, Burke sat behind Todd
Schultz, despite having superior skills. "He wasn't ready
mentally," says Saban. "Now he's become superb at game
A year ago, to replace Schultz, Saban recruited Ryan Van Dyke,
one of the hottest high school talents in Michigan. Van Dyke is
a flashier athlete than Burke but not a better quarterback. A
lefthander with a soft touch and a tight spiral, Burke also has
a calmness that borders on somnolence, which is his way of
leading the team and keeping the magnitude of a monster season
Burke, who grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, was weaned on
the Steel Curtain Steelers of the late 1970s and early '80s.
When he played catch with his dad, also named Bill, dad was
Terry Bradshaw and the son was Lynn Swann. When Bill Jr.'s arm
grew strong enough, the roles reversed. In '85, when the son was
eight, the family moved to Warren, Ohio, where Bill Sr. took a
job as a firefighter at Youngstown Airport. One morning in
January 1991, as the elder Bill drove to work on an icy road, he
was hit by an approaching vehicle that had slid across the
center line. Both occupants of the other car were killed. Burke
had to be cut from his car and was hospitalized for two weeks
with head and internal injuries. His recovery lasted much
longer, and while his wife, Debra, took care of him, Bill Jr.
and his younger sister, Brandi, ran the household. "It affected
him," says Bill Sr. "He did what he had to do and grew up a lot."
On Saturday there was something poetic about Burke and Burress's
final connection, which came with barely a minute to play and
after Burress had covered an onside kick. With the Spartans
holding a 34-31 lead and the ball on Michigan's 32, Burke drilled
Burress on an out pattern for a 15-yard gain that killed the
Wolverines' chances of getting the ball back. Burress leaped to
make the catch and, impossibly, came down inbounds. Three plays
later, Burke took a knee and Spartan Stadium shivered.
Too often in recent years Michigan State has been geeked to play
Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State, but flat in other games.
Steady effort is vital in the Big Ten, which offers a succession
of difficult opponents. The Spartans' next three games are all
against ranked teams: at No. 20 Purdue, at No. 17 Wisconsin and
at home against No. 18 Ohio State. After playing at Northwestern,
the Spartans host No. 2 Penn State. "We're taking 24 hours with
this win, and that's it," said Saban on Saturday evening.
"There's too much ahead for this team and too much we can
accomplish." Burke put it more succinctly: "No big celebrations."
On Monday, Michigan was already a memory, although one last task
involving the game against the Wolverines remained. In Michigan
State's team room is a board that lists the objectives to be met
in each game (400 yards in offense, 28 points, etc.). This year
the Spartans added another category, under the heading 100
PERCENT EFFORT. Any player who feels he gave his best in the
previous game--win or lose--privately signs his name. It's a
hedge against letdowns and look-aheads, and forces each player
to search his conscience. "Best part of the week," says Smith.
"It means you left it out on the field."
On Monday they signed. Relentlessly.