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Spartans embrace fun — and wins

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio walked to the podium after his team rallied to defeat Purdue and maintain a three-way tie atop the Big Ten.

“I’ll take questions,” Dantonio told reporters Saturday after Michigan State improved to 10-1. “And be happy.”

The tone underscored two themes Dantonio’s squad has embraced throughout this surprising season:

» These aren’t the same old Spartans.

» Enjoy the ride.

By beating Penn State this Saturday at Beaver Stadium — which Michigan State has not done in the Joe Paterno era — the Spartans will clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990. And it will have happened after a series of gambles by their all-in coach, who had to wonder whether he would see such an opportunity after suffering a heart attack following Michigan State’s overtime victory against Notre Dame on Sept. 18.

“I think that it has become a greater point of emphasis to enjoy the process,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “I think it forced all of us — not just Coach Dantonio — but forced everyone involved with the program going about our day-to-day activities to understand that nothing’s guaranteed. We have a great opportunity here to play the game of football or coach the game of football, and we have a great platform to make a difference.”

Dantonio did not return to the sideline full-time until Oct. 23 at Northwestern. Michigan State improved to 8-0 that day with a come-from-behind victory highlighted by punter Aaron Bates’ 21-yard completion in the fourth quarter. Five weeks earlier against the Fighting Irish, Bates had completed the winning pass on a fake field goal in overtime, setting off chaos in Spartan Stadium.

“There’s nobody that won’t remember that,” linebacker Greg Jones said. “I think that’s what it’s all about. That’s what makes football the game it is.”

The name of the fake field goal play is “Little Giants.” The name of the fake punt play is “Mousetrap.”

“That’s all Coach D. He likes to have fun,” Bates said. “Whenever he comes up with a new play, he’ll come in and show us and try to give it a name with a sly grin. That’s his little sense of humor.”

Sure enough, another special-teams play propelled Michigan State past Purdue, though not by design. In what Dantonio plainly called “the punt block,” reserve linebacker Denicos Allen blocked a punt deep in Purdue territory to set up the Spartans’ winning touchdown.

In response to the suggestion that his team has been lucky, Cousins, a junior captain, said: “I read a quote from Thomas Jefferson earlier this week where Thomas Jefferson says, ‘I believe in luck, but I find that when I work hard and prepare hard, that luck seems to happen to me more often.’ So, I’m going to go with that one.”

Under the guidance of a coach who faced a midseason life crisis, Michigan State is a victory from a share of its first conference title in two decades.

“That’s been the nature of this football team: We do something special every week to make a play to win a football game, and that sort of breeds confidence,” Dantonio said. “We understand that, every time we get on the field, we have an opportunity to make a play. We’re not always going to make it, but there’s an opportunity to make a play, and different guys have responded throughout this season.”


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