(WSCR) – After an 8-0 start, Michigan State is not only on top of the Big Ten standings, but also on top of the college football world. A definite surprise in a season that is starting to play out like a roller coaster, the Spartans have had their fair share of highs and lows.
Back on the sideline a month after a mild heart attack, Mark Dantonio stayed calm, his facial expression barely changing as Michigan State’s undefeated season began to slip away.
The Spartans trailed by 17 in the first half and 10 in the fourth quarter. Their coach never panicked.
“I think you can’t get too emotionally down,” Dantonio said. “You certainly have to play every play. It was a very close football game. I’ve got to keep my pulse under control, I guess.”
Dantonio’s team didn’t make things easy Saturday, but in the end, his determined confidence was justified. Michigan State rallied for a 35-27 win over Northwestern and is alone atop the Big Ten with four games remaining.
The Spartans (8-0, 4-0) moved up three spots to No. 5 in Sunday’s AP poll and are also No. 5 in the BCS standings. They’ll play what appears to be their toughest remaining regular season game Saturday at No. 18 Iowa.
“I think that great teams in special seasons find ways to win,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We said at Big Ten media days back in August that we thought (we) had found a way to win by going through some bumps last year.”
Michigan State has been fighting some form of adversity for most of the season. After a dramatic win over Notre Dame in September, Dantonio was hospitalized because of a heart attack, and he later had a blood clot in his leg. Dantonio missed two games, then coached two from a box high above the field.
Saturday was his return to the sideline, and it went poorly at first. Northwestern went ahead 17-0 in the second quarter and still led 24-14 in the fourth.
“We knew we were going to get their best coming out,” Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham said. “They came out hard, 17-0, and we had to just come out in the second half and just put it to them, start throwing the ball around, running hard and playing with poise and taking it play by play.”
The Spartans began their final comeback with a fake punt early in the fourth quarter on a play called “mousetrap” – their second big special teams gadget of the season. A fake field goal called “Little Giants” beat Notre Dame in overtime.
The fake punt worked for a first down, and Michigan State was in the end zone moments later, pulling within three. A Northwestern field goal made it 27-21, but the Spartans finally took the lead when Cousins directed an 11-play, 88-yard drive that ended with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Cunningham, who made an acrobatic catch in the end zone.
Cousins is in his second season as the starter. The Spartans went 6-7 last season.
“We’re winning a lot of close games because our quarterback play is very, very high,” Dantonio said. “I think he believes in himself. I think our players believe in him, our coaches believe in him.”
When he’s not sharing goofy names for his trick plays, Dantonio maintains a pretty serious demeanor. He hasn’t been too eager to talk about the BCS rankings, but that chatter may be unavoidable if Michigan State wins this weekend. The Spartans are alone in first place in the Big Ten, with Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue all a game behind in the loss column.
Already, comparisons are being made between this team and Ohio State’s 2002 team that went undefeated. Dantonio was an assistant for the Buckeyes that season, when they won their last three regular season games by a combined 16 points before stunning Miami to win the national title.
“We found out how to win close games,” Dantonio said. “That’s what’s happening to our football team right now. We’re making plays down the stretch. I think that speaks to our players’ leadership on the football field.”
Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.