There may have been 11 minutes left on the clock, but the party was in full swing on the Michigan State sideline. The Spartans' backup offense had just scored the team's eighth touchdown in a 61-14 demolition of Illinois, whose orange-clad fans were streaming for the exits as if participating in a fire drill. Amid the celebration in front of the Michigan State bench, quarterback Drew Stanton shouted to a reporter, "How's that for a letdown?" ¬∂ Touché, Drew. In piling up a school-record 705 yards of total offense last Saturday, the Spartans, now 4-0, avoided the hangover that had been widely predicted for them. Seven times in the last eight years Michigan State has upset a Top 10 team one week, only to pratfall the next. If this pattern were to hold, the boom of the Spartans' overtime road victory over 10th-ranked Notre Dame on Sept. 17 would be followed by a bust in Champaign. ¬∂ Instead, there was Stanton thrusting himself into Heisman Trophy contention, connecting on 20 of 26 passes for 259 yards, with a school-record five touchdowns and no interceptions. (In four games he has completed a ridiculous 79 of his 108 passes, with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.) There was freshman tailback Javon Ringer rushing for 194 yards on 13 carries. There was a previously suspect Michigan State defense slamming the door on the Illini in a game that was over by halftime. There were the diehards in Illinois's student section, seemingly reading the minds of the visitors while chanting to them in the final minutes, "Just beat Michigan!"
None of the Spartans' seven defeats in 2004 rankled so much as their loss in Ann Arbor. While some believe that Michigan's last-minute loss to Wisconsin last Saturday night takes the luster off the matchup between Spartans and Wolverines in East Lansing this Saturday, Stanton & Co. don't see it that way. The truth is, the redshirt junior wants this game worse than any he has played. During an interview last week his left hand drifted to his right (throwing) shoulder as he recalled being knocked out of last year's game. Driven into the turf by linebacker LaMarr Woodley late in the first half, Stanton separated that shoulder. "It was the most excruciating pain in my life," he recalled. "While I'm on the ground, I see the student section going crazy."
With Stanton on the sideline Michigan stormed back. Michigan State coughed up a 17-point lead in the final eight minutes and lost 45-37 in triple overtime. Stanton wants payback, and there is reason to believe he'll get it. The Wolverines' defense that knocked him out of the game has not been as physical as it was last season. Braylon Edwards, the all-galaxy wide receiver who won last year's game almost singlehandedly, has moved on to the NFL. Michigan quarterback Chad Henne is having the mother of all sophomore slumps. And Stanton is much better than he was a year ago. Indeed, one month into the season he looks to be the top quarterback in the Big Ten, which the Spartans could win for the first time since they were co-champs in 1990. Though other contenders, like surprising Minnesota (box, left), can't be dismissed, the conference title could be decided on Oct. 15, when Michigan State visits the Horseshoe for a meeting with Ohio State.
The spartans lost seven games last season largely because week after week they couldn't seal the deal. So when Notre Dame rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime two weeks ago, "a lot of people were thinking about that  Michigan game," says Stanton. "But this year we're more confident, more relaxed."
In addition to being better closers, the new Spartans are more close-knit than Michigan State teams past. After arriving from Louisville three years ago, coach John L. Smith struck a symbolic blow against me-first attitudes by taking the names off the backs of players' jerseys. Under his predecessor, Bobby Williams, coaches and other school officials flew in first class. Now the seniors sit up front. The coaches and VIPs in the traveling party ride in the back.
This year's Spartans are more fun to watch than Michigan State teams past. With Stanton running Smith's spread offense like a virtuoso, the Spartans are averaging 49 points and 594.3 yards of total offense per game. When the 6'3", 222-pound Stanton went in motion on a play late in the second quarter against Illinois, you could almost see the circuits overloading in the defenders' brains. Center Chris Morris snapped the ball to slotback Jerramy Scott (shades of the wing T), who ran past several flummoxed Illini for the easiest 10-yard touchdown he is likely to score this season.
Even when the ball isn't in his hands, Stanton doesn't ease up. In the first quarter the quarterback ran downfield and chopped a linebacker, springing Ringer for a 21-yard gain. "When he started playing, in third grade, he was a linebacker and a running back," recalls Stanton's father, Gaylord, who graduated from Michigan State in 1975 and coached his son's youth team. "When I moved him to quarterback, he got upset. He liked hitting people."
Drew was born at Sparrow Hospital, two miles from the Michigan State campus. When he was eight, the family moved to Lake Oswego, Ore. The Stantons moved back to Michigan after his sophomore year of high school. "It was a tough transition," says Gaylord, who remembers coming home from work one day and finding his son in tears after one of his first practices with Farmington Hills Harrison High. Drew missed his buddies back in Oregon. His new teammates, says his father, "didn't know him from Adam."
That didn't last long. When the starting quarterback went down with an injury, Drew took over. Over the next two seasons he threw for 5,293 yards and 58 touchdowns while leading the Hawks to back-to-back state titles. Based on what he'd done in Lake Oswego, he'd already gotten scholarship offers from Oregon and Oregon State. Now, offers poured in from all over.
After his junior season Drew was invited to "junior day" at Michigan. His parents did not accompany him. "We were placing my father-in-law's cremains underneath the altar of the church we attend," says Gaylord. So Drew took his girlfriend and one of his receivers. "Son," Drew recalls Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr saying to him, "you're not serious about Michigan, are you?"
When Drew asked Carr what he was talking about, the coach--who knew Gaylord was a Michigan State alum--replied, "Your dad Sparty's not here with you."
Drew wasn't inclined to explain to Carr why his parents couldn't make it, but Gaylord says the upshot was that "Drew soured on [Carr] right away."
Later, father and son had a cordial meeting with Carr. "Lloyd's a good guy," Gaylord allows. But first impressions were lasting: Drew cast his lot with Michigan State. After redshirting his first year, he excelled in the team's '03 spring practice and wanted badly to be the guy lining up behind the center.
He got his wish. Sort of. The quarterback job was won by Jeff Smoker, who had senior savvy and an NFL-caliber arm. Stanton was relegated to "personal protector"--the guy who picks up rushers while hoping the punter doesn't propel the ball up his backside. While he was crushed by Smith's decision, Stanton buttoned his lip and went to work, leading the punt team in tackles.
Stanton did such a swell job that the coaches couldn't resist asking him to play on other special teams. It was a gamble, letting your quarterback of the future run under kicks. But it paid off for the Spartans ... until the final game of the season. Covering a punt against Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl, Stanton was hit from behind and tore the ACL in his right knee.
A week into practice for the 2004 season his surgically repaired knee ballooned. Repeated drainings did not help; the knee needed rest. Stanton did not start until the fourth game, at Indiana. After struggling in the first half, he led Michigan State to 23 unanswered points in the second. In a 51--17 rout of Minnesota he rushed for 102 yards and passed for 308. Two weeks later he had rushed for 80 yards against Michigan when Woodley separated his shoulder. To the astonishment of his teammates, he returned two weeks later and directed the Spartans to a win over No. 4 Wisconsin. "I don't know if crazy's the term," says right guard Gordon Niebylski, "but he is tough and fearless and loves to do things that people think he can't do."
Scintillating as he was last season, rushing for 687 yards and passing for 1,601, Stanton put up those numbers "on a leg and a half, or with a bum shoulder, or both," says quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier. Come spring practice Stanton was forbidden to run the ball, serving the dual purposes of allowing him to heal and forcing him to get in the habit of going to his second and third reads. Last season, says offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, "if his first read wasn't open, his second read was his feet."
The spring practice restriction changed that. He is healthy and has a firm grasp of a complex system, a one-back set with plenty of three- and four-wideout packages. The only downside, according to his teammates, is that he isn't running as much. Stanton's rushes are a source of yardage and amusement: Smith calls his frenetic, crazy-legged gait "the drunken sailor." Says guard Kyle Cook, "Against Indiana he was so busy with fakes and moves that he tackled himself." Adds flanker Kyle Brown, "Let's just say you can tell he didn't run track in high school."
Stanton's running and passing may not seem all that amusing to his cross-state rivals this Saturday. The quarterback remembers lying on the turf in Ann Arbor while Michigan fans cheered his injury. They may come to regret their bad manners.
Where does Drew Stanton rank in Gene Menez's Heisman Watch? Find out at SI.com/collegefootball.