Wojo: Spartans win the big moments on both sides
East Lansing — Every time they had to have it, they got it. Big run, big catch, big sack? The Spartans met the big moments again, and it's officially become a part of who they are.
This was a fast-gasp classic, as expected, and whatever Oregon did, Michigan State did just a bit better. The Spartans will have a few more obstacles, but not many (perhaps only one) as large as this. And they handled the pressure like elite teams do, beating the Ducks, 31-28, in a wild Saturday night showcase.
With this, another perception starts to fade, and a bold new brand continues to grow. Michigan State wasn't able to keep up with Oregon and Ohio State last year, and couldn't finish either foe off. That's why this was so huge beyond beating a top-10 team on national TV. It pretty much assures the Spartans will stay in the playoff talk all season, barring a shocking upset.
It got crazy at the end, of course, and the truth is, Oregon showed enough to stay in contention, too. The 31-21 lead was down to 31-28 and the Ducks were threatening with a first down at the Spartans' 37 with less than two minutes remaining. The tension in Spartan Stadium was suffocating, right up until the Spartans pulled off an enormous gamble.
On third-and-6, they sent an all-out blitz, and Lawrence Thomas and Chris Frey smothered Vernon Adams for a 10-yard loss. The subsequent fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and Mark Dantonio had another of those image-altering victories. It wasn't as monumental as the Big Ten championship victory over Ohio State, or the Rose Bowl win over Stanford. But from a national eye-opening standpoint, it at least matched the 42-41 Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor.
"In my mind, this is a stepping-stone game, a game that pays dividends at the end of the season, when people talk about strength of schedule and things like that," Dantonio said. "I just think this was the place to be in this state today."
Clutch plays add up
That was a not-so-subtle reference to Michigan's game earlier against Oregon State — not that there was any doubt the Spartans earned the larger stage. This wasn't a perfect performance, and Michigan State surrendered another long touchdown return, an 81-yarder by Bralon Addison. It looked like it might slip away in the closing minute, but Adams is no Marcus Mariota. He missed a wide-open Byron Marshall for the potential winning score, precisely one play before the clinching sack.
You could brand it an escape, except the Spartans made so many clutch plays leading up to it. And how about this for discipline: Michigan State was called for only two penalties, didn't lose a fumble and didn't allow a sack.
The Spartans stuffed the Ducks four times on fourth down, including at the 1 in the second quarter. They also converted a couple fourth downs, including Connor Cook's perfect 28-yard strike to Aaron Burbridge from the Oregon 34, setting up L.J. Scott's touchdown for a 21-14 lead.
This is how big moments replicate themselves. Cook said the fourth-and-6 pass was the same fourth-down call as the one to Tony Lippett in the wild closing minute of the Cotton Bowl.
"We've played in big-time moments, and that experience honestly helps," Cook said. "You experience those feelings from prior games, and it feels familiar and helps you cope with it."
Cook wasn't overly sharp — 20-for-32 for 192 yards — but the victory speaks to Michigan State's balance, between running and throwing, between offense and defense. Madre London and Scott were a hard-charging tandem, getting the tough yards that kept the Ducks' souped-up offense off the field.
And when Oregon needed just a few inches to convert a fourth down midway through the fourth quarter, Adams couldn't get it. The game was decided in those narrow margins, and the Spartans prevailed because they weren't one-dimensional.
These days, they look all-dimensional, a top-five team that still has room to rise. Ohio State looms near the end of the season, and college football is too wacky to assume victory every weekend before that. But it's a safe bet the Spartans will be sizable favorites in most games, and whenever it gets hairy, they seem to find an answer.
"We're gonna battle you and we're gonna stand in there and keep playing," Dantonio said. "I think that's become a trademark of this program, it's part of our culture, and we have to be able to continue to do that."
This was another showcase event, with all sorts of Michigan State luminaries in attendance, as well as plenty of potential recruits. You make your moments by seizing them and not letting go, something the Spartans are doing more and more often, with more big stages ahead.