Spartans finally rising above adversity

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Linebacker Jon Misch tried to get as close to the BlackBerry as possible, making sure he could hear one of the more unique post-game speeches in college football history.

Misch and his Michigan State teammates had just finished a 34-24 win against No. 11 Wisconsin, overcoming three first-half turnovers and a second-half rally by the Badgers. The Spartans validated themselves as a Big Ten title contender and beat their highest-ranked opponent since upsetting No. 10 Notre Dame in 2005. Michigan State had dropped 14 of its previous 15 games against ranked opponents.

The win was certainly cause for celebration, but Michigan State's raucous locker room quieted down for a few moments as a voice came through one of the coach's speaker phones.

Head coach Mark Dantonio wanted to congratulate his team -- from the hospital.

"He said, 'I'm so proud of you guys, unbelievable win,'" Misch said. "People were yelling, 'I love you, coach! That's for you!' and things like that. It was honestly so hard to hear it, but I made out those few words."

Those few words meant a lot to a team that made a very loud statement to the rest of the country Saturday: These aren't the same old Spartans, so you better get used to it.

"People used to say the big games, when we had the national spotlight on us, we'd crack," Misch said.

Michigan State had its opportunities to crumble, even before Saturday's game. Players only found out Friday night that Dantonio wouldn't be in the stadium after the coach was readmitted to the hospital because of a blood clot in his leg.

Their response?

"Business as usual," quarterback Kirk Cousins said.

Michigan State came out a little shaky, as it had in so many other showcase games. Cousins threw two interceptions and Keith Nichol fumbled.

Wisconsin converted the giveaways into 10 points but did nothing else in the half, and Michigan State amazingly led 20-10 at halftime despite the minus-3 turnover margin.

But the real test came later. Michigan State held a second-half lead, as it had many other times against ranked opponents, only to fall apart. Wisconsin cut its deficit to three points with 10:53 left, and had Michigan State facing third-and-9 from its own 17-yard line.

At that point, Cousins began to lead the drive of his life. And offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, handling the head-coaching duties in Dantonio's absence, made some of the biggest calls of his life.

  • Third-and-9 from the MSU 17: Cousins hits Mark Dell on a slant for 12 yards.

  • Third-and-11 from the MSU 28: Treadwell catches Wisconsin in an all-out blitz, and Cousins finds Larry Caper on a screen pass for 35 yards.

  • Third-and-5 from the Wisconsin 21: The Spartans line up in the shotgun but hand it off to Caper, who scampers 11 yards for a first down.

It all set up a fourth-and-goal from the Wisconsin 1-yard line. Treadwell had gone 1-for-2 on fourth-down attempts, and he decided to pull the trigger again. Cousins, who had executed the play-action perfectly all afternoon, faked a handoff, waited for B.J. Cunningham to get open and fired a touchdown.

"We've had that play in since camp, and I've called for it three or four times," Cousins said. "I wanted it against Florida Atlantic, it didn't get called. I wanted it against Western Michigan, didn't get called. So I guess this was the moment to have it."

It was Michigan State's moment.

Treadwell validated himself as a play-caller and a decision-maker, making several bold decisions down the stretch.

"[Dantonio] has taught us if we don't get a verbal cue from him, then we're going to go play for the win," Treadwell said.

But did Dantonio provide a cue from the hospital? Treadwell said the fourth-and-goal decision was his call, but Dantonio managed to stay involved despite being a few miles away from the stadium.

"He was texting and calling the entire game," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who coached from the press box. "I've never been on the phone so much during the game. He was with us the entire time. ... There was a couple times we called him and said, 'Do we go for it or not?' And he was right there with us."

It's not known when Dantonio will be released from the hospital or when he'll return to his full-time duties. But his assistants and his players are doing just fine without their leader, a major step for a program that has, in past years, had shaky leadership from the top down.

Why is Michigan State finally overcoming adversity?

"We had to learn how to win," Cousins said.

The dramatic overtime win against Notre Dame helped, but a convincing performance against Wisconsin left a stronger imprint.

"We don't feel like people respect us the way we want them to," Misch said. "This game was a big-time game that if we come out and win it, people are going to start opening their eyes and saying, 'Michigan State's got something.'"

The Spartans can gain more respect by beating Denard Robinson and archrival Michigan next week. But it's an uphill battle for a program that has disappointed so many for so long.

"I still feel like we're not respected," running back Edwin Baker said. "We're not going to get our respect until we're 13-0."

Michigan State took another step toward perfection Saturday. After the game, the Spartans sang their fight song, and through the phone, Dantonio listened to every word.

"He's still there," Cousins said, "leading us."