A "giant" step forward
With fake field goal turned touchdown, program gets past demons
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio, senior punter Aaron Bates and senior tight end Charlie Gantt discuss the successful fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame on Saturday at Spartan Stadium that gave the Spartans the 34-31 win.
One play call alone does not win a game.
But in the case of the MSU football team, it certainly can change a program.
Saturday night’s 34-31 overtime win against Notre Dame at Spartan Stadium was as improbable as it was unthinkable. Spartan fans have seen a different outcome too many times before. Nearly every year they witness their team give itself a chance to win late in an important game only to hand it all away in the final moments.
Just last season, down 33-30, MSU had a chance to beat Notre Dame until then-sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins threw an interception deep in Fighting Irish territory with one minute to play, putting the game out of reach. Five games later, MSU held a 13-9 lead over Iowa with 1:37 left, but the Hawkeyes and quarterback Ricky Stanzi marched down the field to score the winning touchdown with no time on the clock.
Saturday night, it appeared it was about to be the same story but only a different season for MSU and its fans.
MSU football players rush the student section after an unexpected touchdown won them the game against Notre Dame on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. A fake field goal turned into a touchdown pass that finished the game, which was already in overtime, with a score of 34-31.
Despite giving up more than 350 yards through the air to Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, the Spartans somehow found themselves tied at 28 with the Fighting Irish, playing in overtime. And after stopping Notre Dame one yard short of a first down on third-and-three on the first possession of the extra session — resulting in a field goal for the Fighting Irish — MSU was 25 yards away from a win.
Then, in typical Spartans fashion, two plays went for negative yards on the ensuing drive, including a nine-yard sack for junior quarterback Kirk Cousins on third down. Faced with fourth-and-14, MSU needed a 46-yard field goal from a kicker in his first year as a starter to tie the game.
With the game seemingly resting on the right foot of sophomore kicker Dan Conroy, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said two words to senior punter and holder Aaron Bates that could prove to be the turning point of a program looking to rid itself of the “Same Old Spartans” label.
Lined up in field-goal formation, Bates took the snap. But instead of putting the ball on the turf for Conroy to kick, Bates stood up and scrambled to his right before hitting senior tight end Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown to give MSU the 34-31 win.
The play was called “Little Giants,” and not only did it give MSU a big early-season win over Notre Dame, it might have helped the Spartans turn the corner from being occasional spoiler to actual contender.Last season, and in each of Dantonio’s first three years in East Lansing, MSU has not been at its best in close games. Before Saturday night, the Spartans held a 6-12 record in games decided by eight points or less under Dantonio, with five of those losses coming last season.
So it’s not beating the Fighting Irish that will change the culture of MSU football, but the way it happened.
The Spartans aren’t supposed to get the favorable calls and lucky bounces late in tight games. Opposing players aren’t supposed to fall down on the last play of the game, leaving an MSU player wide open to catch the game-winning touchdown. It’s just not what fans are used to seeing.
It happened Saturday night though, and although the last play will be the story, the transformation from a team that crumbles late in games to a team that comes out on top no matter what it takes was noticeable in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame easily scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions of the second half, but rather than throw in the towel, the Spartans’ defense came together and came up with four stops to end regulation, including a fumble recovery. The clutch stands by the defense gave Cousins the chance to tie the game, which he did when he hit junior receiver B.J. Cunningham for a 24-yard touchdown with a little less than eight minutes left to play.
In overtime, the defense stepped up again when senior corner Chris L. Rucker stopped Fighting Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph one yard short of a first down.
Dantonio’s play call that came five plays later undoubtedly is best described as gutsy, but it also was a smart play by a coach who obviously knows his team. Conroy has proven he is a quality replacement for the graduated Brett Swenson by connecting on all five of his field goals this season. However, none of those five kicks were against a rival on national television with the game on the line.
So Dantonio placed the game in the hands of seniors Bates and Gantt. They delivered, and Dantonio now is the genius coach of a 3-0 team overflowing with confidence.
One win in mid-September against a non-conference opponent using late-game heroics will not win a Big Ten Championship for MSU. But the next time the Spartans are behind in the fourth quarter or need a critical stop to hold on to a win, their last experience in such a situation won’t be a stalled drive at Notre Dame or last-second touchdown surrendered to Iowa.
Instead, Dantonio and his players always will be able to look back at “Little Giants” and the plays leading up to it, knowing what happened Saturday night might be the defining moment for the future of MSU football.
Jeremy Warnemuende is a State News football reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.