Michigan State finds its winning edge

More than once during Michigan State's 8-0 start, coach Mark Dantonio has said this year's team possesses an edge.

It sounds pretty cool. You start thinking of Spartan warriors butchering their enemies with the sharpened edges of their spears.

But what exactly does Dantonio mean by an edge?

"Your leadership's your edge, your enthusiasm's your edge," the coach explained. "All the positive intangibles that can go along with a person become ... your edge."

Michigan State junior quarterback Kirk Cousins takes it one step further.

"One of the reasons we've been able to win some of the close games," Cousins said, "is because we have had that deep, deep fire, that edge, that has helped us push through some setbacks, whether it be a fumble or an interception, or a touchdown we let up. When you have an edge, it doesn't get you down.

"It enables you to just keep pushing and keep pushing until you're able to get the win."

The Spartans' edge has propelled them to their best start since 1966, a No. 5 ranking in the BCS standings and a place at the head table for national championship contenders. It has helped them overcome deficits in all four of their Big Ten games, including a 17-0 second-quarter hole last Saturday at Northwestern.

It has helped them execute two of the most memorable plays in recent program history -- a fake field goal in overtime against Notre Dame and a fake punt in the fourth quarter against Northwestern -- and add the terms "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap" to this year's college football lexicon.

"Having an edge means having a confidence when things get tough, when things don't go your way," linebacker Greg Jones said. "When they’re completing balls on third down and it's harder and harder to get off the field, it's having the confidence to … never give up."

Michigan State's edge didn't spawn from winning. Just the opposite, in fact.

The Spartans lost five games by eight points or fewer in 2009. Of the 17 games Dantonio lost in his first three seasons as Michigan State's coach, 12 were by eight points or fewer.

Before this season, no one would describe Michigan State as a team that had an edge.

"Looking back on last year, the way it worked out was we did lose a lot of close games," Cousins said, "and right now, we’re winning a lot of close games. I do think there is a correlation between those two. Taking some of the lumps we took last year has enabled us to be successful the second time around."

Michigan State's most painful moment of 2009 came on an October night against Iowa, which brought a 7-0 record to Spartan Stadium. A defensive struggle throughout, Michigan State took a 13-9 lead after a hook-and-ladder play set up a Cousins touchdown strike to Blair White with 1:37 left.

But an Iowa team that certainly possessed an edge, repeatedly rallying for wins, moved the ball down the field, and quarterback Ricky Stanzi found Marvin McNutt in the end zone with no time left.

The Spartans had a front-row seat for the magic show. This year, they're the ones performing it.

"I don’t know if they’ve had as many close games as we had," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It seemed like every one of our games was really close. But they're certainly on a great roll."

Like Michigan State, Iowa went through a stretch of close losses in 2006, 2007 and the first half of 2008 before changing its fortunes with a come-from-behind win against Penn State. Both programs also had to endure off-field problems: Iowa had a wave of player arrests in 2007-08, while Michigan State had the November residence hall incident that involved a major chunk of the roster.

Both programs found ways to rebound.

Iowa now stands in Michigan State's way as the Spartans visit Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

"The fact of the matter is they had a very, very special year last year, and we're having a similar type of season," Cousins said. "We just need to keep going and our next challenge is the Iowa Hawkeyes."