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College Football: The Curse Is Now Over: Michigan State Avoids Its Usual Late-Season Collapse

As 16 seniors left Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday after their ninth win of the year against Purdue, their greatest legacy will be that they were the class that broke the curse: Michigan State’s dreaded curse of starting fast and ending bad.

Before Mark Dantonio became coach last season, former coach John L. Smith started the previous 4 seasons with a 18-4 record and finished 4-22. In 2003, it was a 7-1 start and a 1-3 finish. In 2004 it was a 4-3 start and a 1-5 finish. In 2005 it was a 4-0 start and a 1-6 finish. In 2006 it was a 3-0 start and a 1-8 finish. That is what is called a curse.

Mark Dantonio started last season 2-4 and finished 5-2. The Spartans went 7-6 and ended in a bowl game. After beating Purdue 21-7 at home on Saturday (8-11-08), the Spartans are 9-2. Michigan State lost their first game in California, went on to 6 straight wins, got hammered by Ohio State 45-7, but bounced back with another 3 straight wins.

The curse has officially ended. Dantonio has changed the culture at Michigan State from “it’s all about me” to “we are one.” He has demanded discipline, focus, performance and responsibility. His players now believe they can win and have learned to close out a game and win, time and time again.

The Spartans take a bye this week and then face the seventh-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions en route to finishing their season. As Saturday began, Penn State was 9-0 and ranked No. 3. After being blown out by Iowa 24-23 in Iowa, Michigan State now has a chance to share the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990.

The Spartans’ conference record is 6-1, while Penn State and Ohio State are 5-1, leaving Michigan State a half-game ahead in the standings at this point. Penn State faces Indiana before their showdown with the Spartans. Ohio State faces Illinois and Michigan to close out their season.

Michigan State is currently ranked 18th in the AP Top 25 Poll. The Spartans have a lot to gain and nothing to lose against Penn State, as the 7th-ranked Nittany Lions will be the home-turf favorites. The Spartans are not expected to win, and if they do win, they would earn at least a share of the Big Ten title.

Michigan State (9-2) isn’t dazzling teams right now, like Florida, Alabama and Texas Tech, but they’ll still win a much bigger bowl game this year, even if they lose to Penn State as expected.

What’s been so interesting about Michigan State this year is that the Spartan defense has outperformed its stats. Among the 119 teams in Division 1-A, Michigan State ranks 75th in rushing defense, 59th in passing defense, and 37th in scoring defense. They rank 18th in the nation among all teams, but are not in the top 25 teams in any of these defensive categories.

When it came time to push against Purdue, the damn Spartan defense nearly had a shutout. Their offense had 4 turnovers on Saturday, but the defense held its own.

Michigan State stopped Purdue on their first 15 possessions of the game, including a 14-yard sack on 4 and 5 at the Spartan 27-yard line, and a minus 1-yard stop on 4 and 1 at the Spartan 29-yard line. On their 16th possession, the Boilermakers finally put together a 16-play, 88-yard drive for their only touchdown with 42 seconds remaining in the game.

With just 19 seconds remaining in the first half and Michigan State leading 7-0, freshman defensive back Johnny Adams stepped in front of a Justin Siller pass and returned the interception 40 yards to give the Spartans a 14-0 halftime lead. Again, the defense not only held but scored to help the offense.

Here’s a fact that hasn’t been mentioned by sports reporters and analysts across the country: Of the teams with 9 or more wins, there are only 9 teams that have fewer losses than Michigan State after the 11th week of college football play.

They are Texas Tech (10-0), Texas (9-1), Alabama (10-0), Oklahoma (9-1), Penn State (9-1), Utah (10-0), Boise State (9-0), Ball State (9-0) and Brigham Young (9-1). The Spartans are in pretty heady company by any standard of measure.

Can Michigan State beat Penn State? Penn State just lost to Iowa on the road, 24-23. Sure, JoPa (coach Joe Paterno) is crazy about missing out on another national title. Michigan State hosted and beat Iowa 16-13. In college football, anything can and will happen.

Copyright © 2008 Ed Bagley

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