October 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Close calls, wins make MSU believe

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East Lansing -- They're close and grinding their way ever closer. It's what happens when a team keeps winning, and the coach keeps seeing possibilities where others don't normally look.

Michigan State is headed somewhere big, and it could be somewhere really, really big if it wins in Iowa City this weekend. The Spartans are 8-0, in first in the Big Ten and No. 5 in the BCS, and although they're a touchdown underdog to the Hawkeyes, they possess the ingredients to pull it off.

It's not because they've been through this before. Uh, they haven't. It's because they've been through all the other stuff before, the stinging losses and adversity and nagging labels. My goodness, their coach had a heart attack six weeks ago and now directs an undefeated team with expanding goals.

"I think guys believe when you start winning close games, great things are possible," Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "When you start making plays at the end, you develop confidence you're gonna find a way. I do believe our football team is special. I believe we have leaders and we have an edge to us."

A year ago, the Spartans lost those games, including a 15-13 crusher to the Hawkeyes, decided on the final play. Michigan State finished 6-7, with five losses by eight points or fewer.

Now, the Spartans are controlling the tense moments and pulling the trick-play surprises and fourth-down gambles, just when they appear stymied. Even Dantonio can't say he saw all this coming, but he certainly saw some of it. He saw the maturation of underrated quarterback Kirk Cousins, the star quality of linebacker Greg Jones, and the improvement of his secondary.

You throw the ball well, run the ball well, kick the ball well and make key defensive stops, you have a chance.

The Spartans have done it with equal parts guts and derring-do, and now sit one huge encounter from being directly in the national championship mix. In fact, if Michigan State defeats Iowa (5-2), I think it will win its last three games — home against Minnesota and Purdue, at Penn State — and play for the national title.

Would that be astonishing? Yes. And also, no.

Incident bonded team

From where the Spartans were less than a year ago, after the embarrassing dormitory fracas that led to charges or suspensions against 11 players, it's a surprise. But rather than splintering the team, it had a bonding effect.

"While you don't want those things to happen, I think there was a silver lining," Cousins said. "I even think the suspensions helped our team in the long run. The first time you face adverse situations, you don't quite know how to respond. But the second time, it doesn't take you off guard. You're very prepared to fight your way out."

The Spartans don't dominate games from start to finish, but don't kid yourself — this team is packed with talent and stoked by motivation, led by a steely-eyed coach who doesn't mind taking risks. Dantonio tries desperately to deflect attention and focus on the opponent. But when he faced the toughest opponent after his stunning "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame, 34-31 in overtime, several things happened.

Doctors inserted a stent in a vessel leading to Dantonio's heart and later treated him for a blood clot in the leg. What also developed was a new perspective, perhaps even an emotional loosening the team and coach needed. You can't say the Spartans suddenly played more free and aggressive after Dantonio's heart attack, because he made the Call of the Season before he fell ill. But ever since, when the pressure has built, the Spartans have flicked it aside.

There was Cousins' 1-yard TD pass to B.J. Cunningham on fourth down to seal the 34-24 victory over Wisconsin. There was the fourth-quarter pounding to finish off Michigan. There was the rally from a 17-0 deficit, spurred by a fake punt, to edge Northwestern, 35-27.

"I'm sure (the health scare) has changed me," Dantonio said. "There are other things in life more important than football games. You do your best, and that's good enough for me."

Keeping the faith

One way to relieve the pressure is to be judicious in applying it. Dantonio tells a funny story from a couple of weeks ago, when the team was ready to leave but Jones was running late. Dantonio held the bus for several minutes, which qualified as mild mellowing.

"When game time comes, he's wired and ready to go, but before the game, he seems more calm and collected, more smiles," Jones said. "I like it a lot. I think it helps the guys loosen up and say, 'Hey, everything's going to be OK, no need to freak out.'"

Everything's going to be OK — an especially poignant mantra now for Dantonio. And if he shows increased faith in his players, it's because they've given him reason to do so. Cousins, in particular, has responded, going back to his late interception at Notre Dame last year that produced one of those staggering losses.

Dantonio goes back even farther, to the 2007 team that had a first-time starter at quarterback in Brian Hoyer. He struggled in tight situations and Michigan State went 7-6. The following season, Hoyer led them to a 9-4 mark.

"I believe it started to form then, and built from there," Dantonio said. "We came back, and we came back again from the turmoil of last year. The difference between good and great is not very much, and we try to keep that in perspective."

The difference can be a clutch pass here, a fake kick there. The more you do it, the more you believe you'll do it again. That's how teams go from close to growing closer, and how special seasons unfold.

Mark Dantonio has received a lot of help from offensive coordinator Don Treadwell. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
Junior Kirk Cousins has grown into a quarterback who thrives under ... (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
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