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Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio relives “Little Giants”

Photo: Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

Third-and-five.

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back in the pocket, hoping to find a receiver as he had done so many times before.

Instead, he was swarmed by Notre Dame’s defense for a loss.

Down 31-28, the Spartans needed a miracle to force a second overtime — or an even bigger miracle to go ahead and win the thing.

From 46 yards away, kicker Dan Conroy and holder Aaron Bates, the Spartans’ punter, entered the picture. They prepared for a clutch field goal to send the game to another overtime… but that wasn’t the actual plan. Just a smokescreen.

The ball was snapped, Bates moved in a hurry. Le’Veon Bell — then a freshman — earned his stripes by opening the right side for tight end Charlie Gantt, who caught Bates’ perfectly tossed ball and scored the game-winning touchdown.

“Little Giants,” it was called back in 2010.

Gutsy. Heroic. So much of Mark Dantonio was all over that play.

Michigan State won, 34-31.

Six years later, the fake of all fakes still excites the Spartans’ coach who faces the Irish this Saturday in South Bend. Six years later, and almost to the day, Dantonio — who has since won a Rose Bowl and at least 11 games during each of the past six seasons — still thinks about the call that changed it all in East Lansing.

“I see it from time to time, so yeah — you tend to relive it a little bit,” Dantonio said Tuesday during the Big Ten coaches’ call. “The game itself is on Big Ten Network (classic rewind) at times. I don’t know … I sort of shake my head every now and then, I guess … sort of. I think it was an exciting moment.”

Granted, major moments usually come with precursors. If not for Bell’s game-high 114 yards and a touchdown, the Spartans wouldn’t have been in position to pounce at the last minute. If not for Edwin Baker’s 90 yards … Cousins’ 233 passing yards and two touchdowns … B.J. Cunningam’s seven catches for 101 yards and a score, Keshawn Martin’s eight for 96 and a touchdown …

From top to bottom, Michigan State played as one.

Mark Dantonio with members of the 1966 Michigan State football team. Dantonio has written his own history at Michigan State, connecting the program with its previous era of supreme excellence -- Photo Courtesy of Bob Apisa

Mark Dantonio with members of the 1966 Michigan State football team. Dantonio has written his own history at Michigan State, connecting the program with its previous era of supreme excellence — Photo Courtesy of Bob Apisa

“It was a great football game — it was not just that play,” Dantonio said of the fake. “There were many great plays in that football game that led up to that moment. But, you know, that was one of those moments that we had – and I do believe it’s helped define our culture here. We’ve won a lot of games on the last play of the game, and that was one of them.”

Today, the defending Big Ten-champion Spartans (1-0), ranked No. 12, remain capable of pulling the rug from beneath an opponent. However, they’ve won so many games in decisive fashion in recent years that trickery hasn’t always been needed.

Believe this: Dantonio’s players know when to get loose.

So does Dantonio, who has lost three of the past five to the No. 18 Irish (1-1). If there’s a window, there’s a way.

“Well, I think it comes down to execution — if you have any play drawn up, whether it’s a trick play or not, if you can get execute it and (with the) players on the field making it happen and believing in it,” he said. “Usually, it’s the moment, you know, for that.

“You’ve got to hit the right moment so there’s some guesswork involved with that. You have to be willing to let it go – and if it doesn’t work, survive the moment. But we were fortunate in that football game that it worked.”

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Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio relives “Little Giants”

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