EAST LANSING — As the much appreciated summer months transition into fall, one of the enduring things that makes it more palpable are football nights like Saturday.
At Spartans Stadium before 78,411 under the bright lights in a nationally televised game, Michigan State University (3-0) held on to outlast the University of Notre Dame in an overtime classic 34-31.
As an MSU alumni it has been almost impossible to endure their football campaigns. When they are projected to produce a losing season they win. When they are predicted to win they fall short of expectations. Followers of MSU football have endured macabre decades of improbable losses and failed expectations.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio dialed up a play named after a movie about Pee-Wee football called “Little Giants.” The play, a fake field goal try, produced an improbable overtime victory over the Fighting Irish.
After Notre Dame had kicked a field goal on its first possession in overtime, the Spartans were stopped and appeared to set up for a potential game-tying 46-yard field goal attempt by sophomore kicker Dan Conroy.
“I looked at the situation and said, ‘Little Giants,’” Dantonio said. “I did not want to put that kind of pressure on our kicker. He has the talent, but a 47-yarder in overtime at night against Notre Dame, it was just the right time to do it.”
Punter Aaron Bates rewarded Dantonio’s faith in him, by lofting a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt that sent the joyful MSU faithful dancing home in the midnight hour.
“Coach D likes ‘Little Giants,’” Bates said jokingly. “I think that’s the only movie he’s ever watched. I think all of our trick plays are named after that movie. Originally the play was made for Le’Veon (Bell), but they kind of got twisted up, which was what we wanted to happen. Charlie cleared up and I threw it out there. I knew he would make the catch.”
Gantt said he was surprised to see the ball floating his way.
“All through the week of practice I never got the ball once,” noted the senior tight end. “Le’Veon would shoot up the middle and catch it. Aaron did a great job of reading it, Le’Veon was covered and jammed two people. I got open and I told myself, ‘Just catch it, do not drop the ball.’ Once I caught it and knew I was going to score. It was the most incredible feeling of my life, the most amazing feeling ever.”
Dantonio, the poker-faced, supposedly-conservative head coach is really a riverboat gambler in hiding. His players noted he loves to draw up and practice fakes.
Unfortunately, not long after Dantonio had made the Call of the Year in college football and barely flinched, his heart issues were not fake and he was hospitalized Sunday morning after experiencing a mild heart attack.
As I got up and was preparing to go cover the Lions vs. Eagles at Ford Field, my phone started ringing and I began getting text messages about coach Dantonio. I was in shock and reflective about just how quickly our fortunes can change. The complete contrast of me shaking Dantonio’s hand and seeing a giant smile on his face after the game is a sobering contrast to what he must have endured only a few hours after one of his greatest triumphs at MSU.
The 54-year-old MSU coach had surgery to put a stent in a blocked blood vessel leading to the heart. He’s expected to remain in the hospital a few more days, and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will lead the team during Dantonio’s indefinite absence.
With running backs Bell and Edwin Baker elevating MSU running game to 11th in the country (261 yards per game) and again producing over 200 yards collectively, could the Notre Dame victory become a signature moment, and perhaps this will be the year the Spartans really bring it?
I’m sure the only thing Spartan’s Nation is really worried about bringing is good health to its leader and coach.
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.