October 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Green reign: Spartans gradually showing country they're for real

John Stipek celebrates Saturday's victory by hoisting the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The Spartans improved to 6-0. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Amazing, how a rivalry as ancient as Michigan and Michigan State continues to reinvent itself.

If you were to have focused on atmosphere only, or even on the sheer visuals of a pregame scene in a town that Saturday seemed more like a teeming nation, the 2010 showdown between two unbeaten Big Ten football schools was landmark stuff.

Traffic was a day-long, night-long fright show. Parking? Sure, it was available. But for a lot of people, that parking spot came with a two-mile hike.

It looked by mid-day as if 200,000 people were swarming in the outer stadium radius on an afternoon so warm and sun-soaked it seemed more like summer. Obviously, a lot of them didn't have tickets. And, obviously, not a lot of them cared.

You had to be there for this year's classic. Even if it was just to tailgate ahead of adjourning to a bar on Liberty Street to watch the game on television, being connected in some physical way to the 2010 Michigan-Michigan State game was vital.

There was something cosmic going on this autumn, beginning with the unbeaten records, but extending also to Denard Robinson, the daring Michigan quarterback who had become a national celebrity at the same time Michigan State was rising to its tallest football profile in 40-plus years.

And when it ended just after 7 p.m., it was Michigan State's game, 34-17, with a fancy new question now teasing the Spartans: Are they good enough to handle Iowa, not to mention the upsets that are waiting to happen during the season's second half, and steal a Big Ten championship?

Spartans stating their case

A first lesson about underselling the Spartans came against Wisconsin. Mark Dantonio's team played a crisp game against a good football team, and yet it looked as if it barely registered with the Big Ten and college football worlds at-large.

Michigan was Saturday's favorite. Michigan State was viewed as suspect, as a poor match for Robinson's wiles, as a team that lacked the overall mettle to beat a Michigan team that, frankly, hadn't played a team in its first five games nearly as tough as Wisconsin.

And, so, the Spartans were obliged to show again Saturday that they're a cut above some of the past rebuilt MSU programs that, here and there through the decades, fetched a New Year's Day bowl game but never seemed able to stand for very long in the national limelight.

Saturday, they shut down Robinson and handled Michigan's spread offense. They then took care of business when they had the ball, and not surprisingly.

Dantonio has three terrific running backs and a half-dozen quality receivers. He has a quarterback in Kirk Cousins who can throw a professional pass, with zing and with accuracy, and who measures up — and then some — in the smarts and intangibles category.

He has a defense that gets the job done. That's about all you can say. Or need to say. In the Big Ten, a defense that the past two weeks has held Wisconsin to 296 yards and Saturday tied up Robinson (86 yards rushing) is not winning cheap.

Can MSU handle the Hawkeyes?

And, so, again that question: Assuming they get past an Illinois team that has already beaten Penn State, do the Spartans have enough to handle Iowa in 13 days at Iowa City, where the atmosphere, compared with Saturday's ambience at Ann Arbor, is more stark, more threatening?

It has to do with Kinnick Stadium's intimidation index and, even more, the Hawkeyes, who will unveil for the Spartans more muscle and more downright mean football than MSU has tasted in its first six victorious games.

A personal belief is, no, MSU still has a stair to climb. Iowa is a perfect embodiment of the heft and skill that Dantonio's roster is still a notch beneath matching.

But, to be fair, that was someone's opinion ahead of Michigan State's tussle with Wisconsin, a game MSU won, and a game in which the Spartans all but screamed how they have grown in Dantonio's four seasons at East Lansing.

Strengthening of a program

Ryan Van Bergen, Michigan's junior defensive end, spoke candidly after Saturday's game about the particular lift MSU gets from its trio of running backs: Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell, and Larry Caper.

"They're all physical," Van Bergen said, "and they give Michigan State a big dynamic."It's the kind of testimony that can remind you not to take MSU's football team as lightly as in the past, when a team that was, well — less bolted together — was always vulnerable to a mashing by the Big Ten's true powers, and just as often to the upset.

"This was a great program win," Dantonio said afterward, knowing very well that no Michigan State coach had beaten Michigan three consecutive times since a man named Duffy Daugherty was wrapping up a mini-dynasty during the mid-1960s.

Dantonio said something else, interesting for what it might have revealed about his team.

He said Michigan State had to "play beyond (Michigan's) excitement level."In other words, a team had to show some courage, some grace under pressure, none of which would have been on display Saturday unless Dantonio's team had gained some authentic maturity.

There is a half-season left on the football schedule. That's six more weeks a football team from East Lansing can continue to grow, to become more seasoned, to maybe steal a game against another nationally ranked team.

It's no longer quaint to underestimate the Spartans. It's something the folks in Iowa have probably noticed, as well.