As he flung his arms through the air, contorting his body to deflect the ball away, all Danny Fortener could hear were the cheers.
Was it Michigan State fans? Or the large group of the Maize and Blue wearing faithful that perched themselves in the visiting section at Spartan Stadium? His guess was, more than anything, a hope.
It was Oct. 3, 2009. Minutes earlier the Spartans blew a 20-6 lead against its undefeated in-state rival. Minutes early a monsoon-like storm culminated the perfect ending to a perfect game.
Deadlocked at 20 in overtime, Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier hurled a pass into the end zone on third-and-5. Even 10 years later, Fortener remembers the play like it was yesterday.
"I kind of took my eye off of the receiver and was watching him (Forcier)," he said. "He was kind of looking right at me, looking my way. He threw the ball at me, and he kind of threw it behind me and I remember just kind of sticking my hand out … I tipped the ball. ... I just remember it being so loud, and I didn’t know, because we were at the other end zone if it was Michigan fans or our fans, then sure enough Chris L. Rucker came up with the ball.”
Three plays later, on third-and-8 from the 23-yard line, Larry Caper bounced a run to the outside, left a wimpy tackler in his tracks and sent the Spartan faithful home happy with a 23-yard touchdown run. The Spartans upset the 20th-ranked Wolverines that day 26-20.
And in doing so ended a long chapter of Wolverine dominance before starting their own.
“I'll never forget that last play," former Spartan linebacker Eric Gordon said. "Scoring that touchdown and, I don’t know, it just felt like we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”
In terms of being "here," this was just the start.
A year earlier, Michigan State defeated Michigan for the first time in Ann Arbor since 1990. Now, Dantonio guided the Spartans to consecutive wins against the Wolverines for the first time since 1967.
To make that more clear — there were 42 years in between those accomplishments.
Since then, Michigan State is 6-3 against the Wolverines. And it took only two years to accomplish another 2-game winning streak.
The ascension in the past decade for Michigan State in its quest to capture the Paul Bunyan trophy gives a new meaning to those once long standing records. They serve as a foundation for what Dantonio has built MSU's program on — a team that's been able to get off of the mat, even in the harshest circumstances.
Take that 2009 season for example. Losses to Central Michigan, Notre Dame and Wisconsin had Michigan State backed into a corner with going through its rival as the only means to get out.
The Spartans took a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter on a two-yard touchdown run by Caper. Then, a 19-6 lead in the fourth on a 15-yard Glenn Winston touchdown. Led by Kirk Cousins, the upset was almost certain.
“He played as tough as I've ever seen him play," Fortener said of Cousins. "He was only a sophomore at the time. I think that's when we really saw him as a competitor.”
Then came the torrential downpour. And the comeback.
Forcier completed a 60-yard touchdown to Darryl Stonum to draw the Wolverines within eight in the fourth quarter. With two seconds left, he leveled the game at 20 on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree.
“Sure enough they came marching down. Forcier had a few scrambles I think at the end," Fortener said. "We were feeling pretty good, and sure enough they score a quick touchdown and then they’re driving down with a minute to go and kind of got us.”
Fortener, who admittedly didn't play a lot that afternoon, came up with the play of his life in overtime. So did Caper.
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“You always remember the celebrations after beating Michigan, especially being at home," Fortener said. "We were 1-3 at the time and that win kind of propelled us into — I think we won the next three games or so. But, you know for our seniors and what not that year, it was something special.”
The Spartans won their next two games against Illinois and Northwestern, and climbed themselves out of a deep trench of mediocrity and into a more shallow version of it.
In many ways, this year's Michigan State team sits in a similar position — a program dragging itself into a matchup against an in-state rival where they desperately need a win.
The Spartans were anguished in 2009 and entered their clash with the Wolverines at 1-3. For a moment, MSU's win brought back hope, began a three-game winning streak and provided a start for a potential turnaround season — one that ultimately flamed out to a 6-6 record.
A decade later, there isn't a season to turn around or save, but there is one to complete. To reach a bowl game, beat a rival and attempt to end the season in a winning vibe — all of which begins on Saturday for Michigan State.
“When you get used to losing, anything to get you back on that win streak makes a huge difference," Gordon said. "Playing against your rival, it gives you just that much more motivation to get back on.”
Michigan State can take a lesson from its decade-past self. That 2009 season could've finished differently, ugly and without a postseason opportunity. That team could've wilted — maybe should have wilted. But had the fortitude to pick itself up in the midst of a failed season when there was no other option.
As he stood in front of media Tuesday afternoon, with his team in the midst of a four-game losing streak and on the brink of destruction, Dantonio recognized that. And that his team has that same opportunity against the Wolverines. Saturday will prove if his players do, too.
"Just gives you an indication. Get yourself ready to play hard," he said. "We played hard in that football game.
"I've gone back. You tend to look at things from the past and you go back and you look at certain things, especially in the last four years here since Coach (Jim) Harbaugh has been there, you want to look at things they have done, that type of thing. But you spend a little bit of time looking in the past, too. I think it's good to have a little bit of history there, but got to focus on the moment."
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