MSU Insider: Spartans' luck changes, but outlook isn't all Rose-y

Published Nov. 24, 2010 8:29 a.m. EST

East Lansing -- Michigan State really shouldn't have to apologize for good fortune being part of its 10-1 record.

Not after all the bad things that have happened over the years to this football program. If any team in America is due some good luck, it is Sparty.

"There's a lot of things that haven't gone the Spartans' way in past years," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "It's just nice to be on the other side of that."

The Spartans have won three times because of special-teams plays late in a game. First, came the fake field goal against Notre Dame, then the fake punt at Northwestern and finally last week's blocked punt to rally against Purdue.

Michigan State also had a favorable schedule that included not playing Ohio State and getting Wisconsin early. But, in fairness, all that is just a little sunshine and blue sky finally breaking through the dreadful dark clouds that seemingly hung over this program for so long.

"I read a quote from Thomas Jefferson earlier this week that said, 'I believe in luck but I find that when I work hard and prepare hard that luck seems to happen to me more often,'" Cousins said, paraphrasing.

"I'm going to go with that one and say there's no doubt some things have fallen our way this year, but if you look at any team in history that has had a special season, they've had to have something at some point fall their way and they'd have to deem it as somewhat lucky.

"You can point to different points in our season where that has occurred, but when it happens over and over and over and continues to happen, I think you also have to look at the fact there's some talent, there's some hard work going on, and there's some character and there's some resiliency. That's definitely why we're in a position to even have the luck happen."

For decades, Michigan State was known for finding ways to lose. No Spartan will ever forget the 2006 disaster when an 18-point, fourth-quarter lead was squandered at home to Notre Dame, but the list really is endless.

They lost by a point in 1997 at Purdue on a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown with about two minutes remaining, followed by an on-side kick and another touchdown.

No team, besides the Detroit Lions, has invented more ways to lose over the years than the one in East Lansing. But now the Spartans are doing the opposite. They're actually finding ways to win, and they really shouldn't have to defend themselves for it.

It's not the sign of a powerhouse, but it is the mark of a good team. Good teams are opportunistic, and the Spartans have been just that this season.

When he took over as coach in 2007, Mark Dantonio had to restore a winning mentality, which couldn't have been easy considering the previously mind-set.

Two years ago, Michigan State played at Penn State under similar circumstances to this week, with a chance to tie for the Big Ten title, only to get embarrassed, 49-18. Dantonio believes this team, which is a two-point favorite compared to the 16-point underdog that went to Penn State in 2008, is better equipped to finish the job.

"Absolutely," Dantonio said. "We have a group of 30 who have done that before. We can draw from that experience."

What really doesn't seem right is that after this long wait -- 20 years since a Big Ten championship, 23 since a Rose Bowl appearance -- Michigan State is probably not going to be completely satisfied, no matter what it does on the field.

Even with a victory Saturday to finish 11-1, 7-1 in the conference, the Spartans are likely to lose out on the three-team tiebreaker for the Rose Bowl bid (to Wisconsin, based on BCS standings) and also get passed over for a BCS at-large bid (with Ohio State going to Sugar Bowl).

That will leave them with a consolation prize of the Capital One Bowl, perhaps against former MSU coach Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide, but the Spartans were there two years ago.

A season like this is supposed to end with one of the prestigious BCS games, specifically the Rose Bowl. But Michigan State is paying a price for being the team that lost most recently among the contenders, in a dreadful performance at Iowa -- just when the nation was starting to pay attention to the Spartans.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is playing as dominant as just about any team in the nation over the last few weeks, and Ohio State is, well, Ohio State. Both teams are unquestionably deserving.

Still, it's a little incredible how this is working out for Michigan State, the only team to beat Wisconsin, albeit way back on Oct. 2 in the conference opener in East Lansing.

The Spartans are playing for a piece of the Big Ten championship Saturday, but they'll do it on ESPN2 up against the Michigan-Ohio State national telecast on ABC. And to make matters worse, to have any real shot of going to the Rose Bowl, they have to root for help from, of all teams, Michigan.

So the Spartans aren't going to get the grand prize, barring some unexpected developments, but they will have the personal satisfaction of knowing they're Big Ten champs, if they can win. And if they do, Dantonio will state his case for why the Spartans deserve one of those BCS bids. Athletic director Mark Hollis will do everything he can to convince the decision-makers, too.

In the end, it probably won't matter. Sparty, deep inside, will feel just a little cheated even with all its success.

Nov. 24, 2010