October 2, 2010 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

MSU flexes its muscles, takes crucial step in Dantonio's rebuilding plan

The Spartans, including receiver Mark Dell, celebrate their victory over Wisconsin. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

East Lansing -- You can focus first of all on Michigan State's immaculate record (5-0). Or, on the national rankings, where MSU could be pulling a Top 15 ranking after the pollsters' cards have been fully shuffled by late Sunday.

Simply mulling the ways coach Mark Dantonio's team beat up Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium in Saturday's murk and chill is an even better way to gauge how far the Spartans have traveled as a football team.

But for sheer clarity, for the straightest possible line in explaining how State has grown, we'll begin with words from Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins as he stood in the thick air of an interview trailer following Saturday's enormous 34-24 dusting of the 11th-ranked Badgers.

"We had to learn how to win," said Cousins, whose own mistakes Saturday were trumped by the NFL-grade passes he threw when it most mattered.

"It took some time to learn how to win."

The "times" were all those cruel defeats that have seemed through the decades to be a part of Michigan State's football DNA.

And so the Spartans ran a reverse Saturday. They beat an excellent football team, and there was nothing flukish about it.

Defense stands out

They took it to a Badgers squad that, for a few of us, loomed as one of those muscle-bound brutes Michigan State so often has had trouble matching up against.

MSU's defense instead swarmed and pursued. They clamped onto receivers as if the Spartans were jumper-cable jaws. They kept the Badgers off-balance and, just often enough, out of the end zone.

State essentially put a quota on Wisconsin's big plays and stuck to it. MSU's linebackers, led by Greg Jones, looked like the cover-boy corps they were supposed to be in 2010.

Jones and Co. pulled off a nifty two-way bit of trickery in holding down Wisconsin's running game (165 yards) and helping out the secondary, which put the handcuffs on quarterback Scott Tolzien, who had all of 127 yards passing.

Total yardage from a Wisconsin team that needs livestock scales for its weigh-ins and a calculator for its typical Saturday of total offense:

The Badgers got 292 yards. Impressive work, very much so against a Wisconsin team that until Saturday was considered the 11th-best college football team in the land.

Far from perfect

One more statistic that can't be over-estimated Saturday: the Spartans had four penalties.

A football team that looked as if it should be sent to its room a week earlier against Northern Colorado because of all its flag-filled mischief played Saturday with discipline to match its emerging muscle, which won't be good news in Ann Arbor as the Wolverines get the Big House ready for company Saturday in Ann Arbor.

The Spartans will be favored, and should be, because of everything that was on display against Wisconsin.

They were a mile from perfect, and maybe that was also a victory for State on a day when Mark Dantonio was "coaching" from his room at Sparrow Hospital. The Spartans shook off a couple of terrible passes by Cousins, a fumble, and a missed assignment here and there. And they won in no-doubt-about-it fashion.

"One of our thoughts is that we wanted to make big plays at clutch times on both sides of the ball," said Don Treadwell, the Spartans offensive coordinator who has been taking Dantonio's spot on the sidelines.

Nothing revealing there, except that Michigan State, for years, has wanted to make big plays on either side of the ball. So many times, though, the Spartans have come up just shy, particularly when playing a ranked team.

But not Saturday.

Pat Narduzzi, who has been Treadwell's co-pilot as he runs MSU's defense, could also feel vindicated Saturday.

The secondary had been getting walloped in earlier weeks and, for all the Hollywood glitter cast on Jones and State's linebackers, nothing terribly inspiring had been happening on State's defense.

It was as if Narduzzi's marauders needed to duke it out with a Pork Chop Hill band like the Badgers to finally show their mettle.

"We feel like they played our style of ball -- smash-mouth ball," said Chris L. Rucker, one of Narduzzi's cornerbacks who played so tight to the Badgers receivers Saturday you wondered if he'd doused his jersey in Krazy Glue.

"We knew we had to stop their big plays."

Rebuilding taking shape

Astonishingly, the big, bad Badgers, who so often have maimed the Spartans these past 20 years, couldn't counter-punch. The knockouts belonged to MSU.

"There were times when they knew we had to run," Cousins said of Wisconsin's defense, "and we knew we had to run. And we still got four, five yards."

This is how football teams make it to the next level. It was a moment Dantonio has been building toward for the four years since he decided to take on a massive rebuilding program in East Lansing that was as much psychological as physical.

Frankly, it seemed as if the re-tooling might require another year or two, and it still might in terms of MSU becoming a serious BCS contender.

But with no stumbles in its first five weeks, and with one of its heavyweight rivals now lying on the canvas, Michigan State can make this an extraordinary football season -- as long as it plays during these next seven weeks with the poise, and power, it began to show with that incredible overtime touchdown last month against Notre Dame.

"We're starting our fourth season," Narduzzi said, "and I think every year we continue to get good players. And I think every year it will keep getting better and we can match with anyone, I think."

They can think it after Saturday's victory, which might have been a watershed day for Michigan State football.

They can't take any games off, of course, which is why it's probably good they're playing another unbeaten bunch, the Wolverines, this week.

Lots of things happen when Michigan and Michigan State play. Letdowns aren't often part of the package.

lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com

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