INDIANAPOLIS — What separates good football teams from their average counterparts is the ability to be victorious in games they have no business adding to the win column. No team has benefitted more in that area this season than the Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans.
The most memorable illustration of such an event is the infamous ending of the Spartans’ game against the Michigan Wolverines on Oct. 17. A fumbled snap on what should have been a routine punting play that would have all but ended the game with Michigan’s sixth consecutive win, led to a calamity of errors and the football in the hands of Michigan State safety Jalen Watts-Jackson. The 19-year-old returned the fumble 38 yards for a touchdown as time expired to push his team’s record to 7-0.
Without that play, the Spartans are sitting on their couches in East Lansing on Saturday Dec. 5 watching the Big Ten Championship game instead of playing in it.
Having success in those critical moments and winning games you’re not supposed to is a combination of luck and skill. It also brings out a never-say-die attitude that can propel a team past in-game struggles.
Luck may have gotten Michigan State to Indianapolis, but skill and a killer instinct brought home a conference championship.
The Spartans trotted into a very Hawkeye-friendly Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday and walked out victorious following a 22-play, 9:04 drive that dashed Iowa’s unblemished dream season and likely put the Spartans in the College Football Playoff with a 12-1 record.
“Our football team knows how to win. We can play it out. We don’t count ourselves out,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio told reporters after the game. “Things aren’t going so well, we keep playing, as evidenced really by the football game in general.”
Michigan State took its time getting into the end zone on that game-winning drive, finally finding pay dirt in the form of a one-yard LJ Scott touchdown run with 27 seconds left to put the Spartans up for good, 16-13.
“We knew we had to execute each play,” Scott said. “You know, we knew each play was big and that we had to stay with the ball. I was just trying to make a big play for my brothers. We knew what we had at stake.”
Scott finished the game with 73 yards on 22 carries, but his ability to fall forward after contact for first downs proved more valuable than his raw numbers illustrate. He ran for three first downs on Michigan State’s final drive, converting twice on third and short.
“We weren’t getting big runs, they were four, five, three, that type of thing,” Dantonio said. “I sort of felt like No. 3, LJ Scott, was in rhythm. He found a crease, he’d get north.”
The mental toughness and lessons learned by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat shouldn’t be underestimated. After the Michigan game and despite the one-point loss in Nebraska three weeks later, it appears the Spartans never feel like any game is spiraling out of their control.
“We are a tough unit and throughout this year, nothing has been easy for us,” Spartans center Jack Allen said. “We had to push through in those last minutes. We’ve done that all year, and there were haters at times, but we just cared about the guys in that room and kept pushing for each other.”
The Spartans have likely pushed themselves all the way into the four-team playoff, where a matchup with undefeated ACC champion Clemson or one-loss SEC champion Alabama awaits on New Year’s Eve.
Michigan State won’t be favored in either of those matchups, but that’s of little importance to the players. Offensive lineman Donavon Clark said he knew his team was going to win Saturday night’s game even after falling behind in the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago they walked into Columbus and extinguished the Ohio State Buckeyes’ undefeated season. Being underdogs in the semi-final won’t faze this team.
The Spartans have proven that adversity won’t stand in the way of their success.