Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Labeled as the Big Ten's surprise team before the season, Michigan State lived up to its billing and broke down a few barriers in the process.
The Spartans turned heads with a 9-3 record and a Capital One Bowl berth, but how they did it was the real surprise, given how things have gone in East Lansing the last few years.
After losing six games by seven points or fewer last fall, Michigan State won two Big Ten contests by three points or fewer. The Spartans snapped a six-game losing streak to archrival Michigan, overcoming an egregious touchdown call to rally for 21 unanswered points in the second half. Most importantly, Michigan State avoided its annual midseason collapse, rebounding from an embarrassing home loss to Ohio State to win three straight.
Arguably no player in the country meant more to his team than Spartans senior running back Javon Ringer, who led the nation with 370 carries and ranked third in rushing average (132.5 ypg). Michigan State put a tremendous burden on Ringer and the senior consistently came through. Quarterback Brian Hoyer lacked impressive stats but made the throws when it counted, and wideout Blair White emerged during conference play.
Like the offense, Michigan State's defense didn't dazzle many people, but the Spartans were tough in the red zone and after halftime. Safety Otis Wiley turned in a spectacular September, and Greg Jones continued to establish himself as one of the Big Ten's premier linebackers.
Though the Spartans admittedly aren't an elite program, they're on their way and could take a big step by beating Georgia on Jan. 1.
Offensive MVP -- Running back Javon Ringer
Michigan State didn't try to mask its offensive strategy. The Spartans fed Ringer the ball time and again, daring opposing defenses to stop him. Most had no luck. Ringer emerged as an early Heisman Trophy candidate and had seven 100-yard rushing performances, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. He was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and tied for the national scoring lead (10.5 ppg).
Defensive MVP -- Linebacker Greg Jones
Jones followed an impressive freshman season with an even better sophomore campaign. He led Michigan State and ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles (115). Jones was second among Big Ten linebackers in tackles for loss (12.5) and tied Illinois' Brit Miller for the league lead in solo stops (72). Spartans safety Otis Wiley deserves a mention here after recording four interceptions and 71 tackles this fall.
Turning point -- Oct. 25 at Michigan
This used to be the type of game Michigan State always lost. The Spartans were coming off a mojo-killing 42-point home loss to Ohio State and had been plagued by October collapses in previous seasons. They faced a Michigan team they hadn't beaten since 2001 and entered a stadium where they hadn't won since 1990. But Michigan State prevailed behind Hoyer and Ringer, overcoming a bad call to crush Michigan in the second half.
Coach Mark Dantonio did an excellent job winning nine games with so-so talent, and his recruiting upgrades will have Michigan State among the league's upper crust for some time. A Capital One Bowl win against Georgia would be huge, but Michigan State's top offseason priority will be the offensive backfield after losing both Ringer and Hoyer to graduation. The Spartans also must fill some holes on both lines but should be in position for another strong campaign in 2009.