Mark Dantonio's faith drives special season

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Mark Dantonio comes off as an all-business coach, but he has a playful side.

It comes out in how he labels his fakes on special teams.

America knows all about "Little Giants," the fake field goal named after the Rick Moranis/Ed O'Neill comedy that lifted Michigan State to an overtime win against Notre Dame in Week 3. On Saturday, Dantonio introduced us to "Mousetrap."

Yep, just like the kids' game.

"We had to get them to take the cheese," Dantonio said with a big grin.

Northwestern bit hard, punter Aaron Bates found redshirt freshman receiver Bennie Fowler for a first down, and Michigan State added another unforgettable moment to its unforgettable season.

"Mousetrap" didn't decide Saturday's game like "Little Giants" had against Notre Dame, but Dantonio's decision swung the momentum back to Michigan State's side early in the fourth quarter. The seventh-ranked Spartans went on to complete their comeback -- they trailed 17-0 midway through the second quarter -- and beat Northwestern 35-27 to remain perfect at 8-0.

"You see any of the championship teams, their coaches are always going for it all," Fowler said. "Because not everything is promised."

This much is promised: Michigan State heads to Iowa City at 8-0, one step closer to becoming the Big Ten champion.

Dantonio returned to the field Saturday for the first time since calling "Little Giants" against Notre Dame. His subsequent heart attack and surgical procedure kept him away from the stadium for two games, and then in the coaches' booth for wins against Michigan and Illinois.

By midweek, he felt good enough to coach on the field but didn't make the final determination until five minutes before kickoff Saturday. It was a good decision, setting up an even better one several hours later.

Michigan State trailed 24-14 and faced fourth-and-6 from the Northwestern 31-yard line. A stiff headwind prevented a long field-goal try, and the Spartans originally lined up to go for it before calling timeout.

"I had weird feeling that [the fake] was going to be called, just knowing coach D for so long and how we've practiced," receiver Keith Nichol said. "I was hoping he'd call for it. ... He trusts his players. He put that game, essentially, in a redshirt freshman's hands, and that's huge."

MSU took a delay of game penalty: in part to create more separation for Fowler to make a play, and in part because Fowler originally lined up on the wrong side of the formation. The Spartans had always practiced "Mousetrap" to be run along their own sideline, but the ball was on the opposite hash.

"We noticed on film that the DBs would play hard for about 10 yards, and then they would just release," Fowler said. "I was able to slip behind the defense."

Just like Michigan State had planned, Northwestern cornerback Jordan Mabin lost Fowler, which allowed the freshman to catch Bates' pass, thrown into the wind.

"We felt like we could sneak one in there, especially with Bates," Dantonio said. "It's timing, it's execution. I just name the play."

He also shows his players just how much he believes in them.

"It tells you that he's a man about winning," Fowler said, "putting all the chips in and just let it ride."

Michigan State scored on the next play to cut Northwestern's lead to three points.

"To have a special season, you have to be willing to roll the dice at times," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Right now, we're rolling the dice and getting the right number."

There was nothing fancy about the way the Spartans took their first lead. Down 27-21 with 7:18 remaining, the Spartans marched 88 yards in 11 plays, most of which were the clutch variety.

Michigan State faced a second-and-20 and a third-and-15 on the drive and twice found ways to move the chains. Cousins completed 7 of 8 attempts for 98 yards. Receiver Keith Nichol made two huge catches on long-yardage situations, and B.J. Cunningham capped it off by squeezing a 9-yard touchdown that had deflected off of Northwestern's Brian Peters.

"On that drive, things clicked, things worked our way," Cousins said. "To have a special season, you need some breaks to fall your way. And we just found a way."

Cousins finished the game 29-for-43 passing for 329 yards and three scores with no interceptions.

Now only if he could catch up to Bates, who now boasts a passer rating of 475 (2-for-2, 50 yards, 1 TD) on the season.

"Hey, if he's giving out quarterback lessons, I'll be sure to come in and attend," Cousins said.

If Dantonio gave lessons on gutsy calls, he'd certainly get a larger turnout after "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap."

Although Dantonio claims he's always been a risk-taker, the gambler has truly come out this season.

And it had to, for Michigan State to be 8-0.

"I believe in our football team," he said. "I'm going to give ourselves a chance to win every opportunity. We're going to take calculated risks. That's all a part of it. ... When your players can execute and when you have the right timing on things, I don't care what you call, things can happen for you."

Right now, things are happening for Michigan State. Great things.

And the Spartans seem to be at their best with their backs against the wall.

"You go 8-0 with players that believe," Dantonio said. "You go 8-0 when you build a program and there's a ripple effect, top down, throughout our program that people believe in what's going on.

"If you're going to be 8-0 and have an opportunity to maybe, maybe, maybe, play for a championship, you've got to be able to play in this environment."