Minneapolis - Like a punch from Mike Tyson, the MSU football team confronts its Big Ten opponents with a powerful hit early and tries to knock them out.
This tactic worked once more Saturday as the Spartans beat Minnesota, 44-38, in front of a lackluster crowd of 38,778 at the Metrodome. The win put the Spartans in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten and No. 11 in the nation as they continued their miraculous rise from the depths of last season.
On the opening kickoff, the Spartans squib-kicked to Minnesota's tight end Jarod Posthumus. MSU's Kiel Beltinck attacked and forced a fumble that senior linebacker Mark Goebel recovered, and the Spartans rolled from there.
"I wasn't expecting it at all," Beltinck said. "I kind of saw it out of the corner of my eye, so I started squeezing toward the ball. He picked it up and started running my way, so I tried to keep it low and got my head across the ball."
Only four plays later, sophomore running back Jaren Hayes scored to give MSU (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) a 7-0 lead over Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) that it never gave up. Only four minutes later, Hayes followed the touchdown with a second. The Spartans have now outscored their conference opponents 45-0 in the first quarter this season.
"The bad thing is that we don't get to play, because we are on a roll and things are going good, but we can't change it," head coach John L. Smith said of MSU's upcoming bye week. "So we have to say that it's a good thing that we can get everyone healthy."
The win means the Spartans are off to their best start since 1966, when the Spartans went 9-0-1 after tying Notre Dame 10-10. The win guarantees MSU a winning record this season.
"I've waited a long time for that," sixth-year senior guard Paul Harker said. "Who'd have thought this would be the year? Before going into this season, who'd have thought we'd be 7-1, 4-0 in the conference and going like we are right now?
"It's just an incredible feeling."
MSU won without senior defensive end Greg Taplin (sprained knee) and sophomore wide receiver Kyle Brown (separated shoulder). Without Taplin, the Spartans held Minnesota to only 148 yards rushing but gave up 377 yards passing.
"We're a contender, we have a chance, but we're going to have to play awful, awful good," Smith said. "This is just the start of the uphill climb. Thank goodness we have the bye. We're bandaged up. We look like the M.A.S.H. unit."
After a touchdown pass from Golden Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq to wide receiver Tony Patterson brought the game to 17-10, the Spartans began looking off their game.
On third-and-2 on the 21-yard line, they called two consecutive timeouts and were penalized for an illegal snap before senior quarterback Jeff Smoker hit sophomore wide receiver Aaron Alexander for a 23-yard pass that led to a 6-yard Smoker touchdown run.
From there, the scoring took off in the final minute of the first half, with running back Marion Barber III scoring a touchdown with 48 seconds remaining. The ensuing kickoff was returned 100 yards by junior cornerback DeAndra Cobb to give MSU a 31-17 lead.
"With Cobb's return, I think that took a lot of wind out of their sail because they had the sail full at that time," Smith said. "They had just scored, it's right before half, they're gonna go in all pumped up."
After a fumble forced by junior safety Jason Harmon, recovered by junior linebacker Ronald Stanley, junior place-kicker Dave Rayner made a 50-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. It was Rayner's 10th consecutive successful attempt.
After Minnesota scored 14 consecutive fourth-quarter points, the Golden Gophers had one final shot at an onside kick, but redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Stanton fell on the ball and the Spartans ran out the clock.
The Spartans have a bye week before they face Michigan at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 1.
Jon Styf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.