Oct. 22, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The 'Cats were coming off a loss and bumping up against an opponent that was ranked No. 8, firmly favored and the buzz of the Big Ten. On that occasion, last Nov. 7, they toppled Iowa and used the victory as a springboard that carried them all the way to the Outback Bowl. "That," remembers the cornerback Jordan Mabin, "was a big game for us and that was a big win for us. That kind of defined where we wanted to go as a team once we made that collective decision."
The 'Cats are again coming off a loss and bumping up against an opponent that is ranked No. 8, firmly favored and the buzz of the Big Ten. But they want nothing to do with parallels or how their Saturday meeting with Michigan State could be the defining moment of their season. "Possibly. I would say they're similar (situations) in that we're playing a high-ranked team, in the top-10," Mabin will say to this suggestion, but that is as far as he or any 'Cat will go down that line of thinking.
More characteristic is what comes next. "But each Big Ten game is like that," is what Mabin says next. "This is the one we have on the schedule this week and, honestly, that's how we take every single game. For me, every Big Ten game is a huge game. Every game has something on the line. They're undefeated. That just means they're undefeated. Kudos to them. But every Big Ten game is like the Big Ten championship because that's where we ultimately want to go and that's how we have to look at each week. This is the championship game right now."
"Any Big Ten team, no matter what their record is, can come in here and play well," defensive end Kevin Watt echoes moments later. "Obviously the atmosphere's going to be awesome playing against a great team. But, like Jordan said, every game's a special one."
Here's the take of 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald on that same subject: "I think maybe the things that are beyond our control are similar, from the standpoint of playing ranked teams and all that. Yeah. But we've worked our butts off the last two weeks really to improve and I think it's more important that we come out and show that improvement to give us the confidence (we need) as we move forward for the rest of the year."
In the 'Cat loss to Purdue, the Boilermakers limited the scrambling of quarterback Dan Persa
by (often) rushing only its ends and leaving its tackles floating along the line. Does he expect the same from the Spartans? "Maybe. They're going to try and disrupt our offense any way possible," he says. "Purdue shut down the running lanes a little bit. So I've got to come back to my check downs a little bit better. I think I was taking off a little bit prematurely the other week."
The Boilers also burned the 'Cat defense with a pair of those explosion plays that are a staple of the Spartans' offense, which is averaging 447.6 yards per-game. "It's all about discipline, playing through your man, playing your responsibility," Watt said when asked how they would keep from getting burned again. "Sometimes we weren't playing as one. Someone would be out of their gap or not filling their hole right. So we're definitely working on going back to fundamentals and playing through your gap and doing your job and not trying to do too much."
Which got us to wondering if a player ever got complimented for stepping out of his assigned role and trying to do extra.
"Depends on whether you make the play or not," Mabin said with a smile. "Our (defensive backs) coach (Jerry Brown) always says, 'You take it, you make it.' If you take the chance, you've got to make the play."
"(Defensive line) Coach (Marty) Long calls it a 'Thataboy.' It's like, 'You didn't play your responsibility correctly. But you got after it and you made the play. Thataboy.' But they'd like for you to play your responsibility."
Getting back to parallels: Fitzgerald, like any good coach, long ago recognized that it was important for players to feel empowered and to assume ownership of their team. That was one reason he formed its 10-member Leadership Council, which he meets with weekly. But it was just this season that Spartan coach Mark Dantonio established a players' Unity Council, which has received some credit for their 7-0 start. "We have (their meetings) take place where we do meetings in our main staff room, where our coaches sit," he says of this group. "I talk to them about how, when you sit in this room, you're making decisions about this program at the highest level. And I want them to know that when they're sitting in those same chairs, they're in that same situation. I want to empower them. I want to help them make decisions at the highest level that they can as players."
It doesn't hurt, of course, that he also has a stud like senior linebacker Greg Jones, who is certain to be a big part of Saturday's showdown. He leads the Spartans in tackles, just as he has in each of the last three seasons, and has been their leading tackler in 27 of their last 33 games. He is one of the favorites to win the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top collegiate linebacker, and he is abetted by the oft-overlooked Eric Gordon, who himself would be considered a stud if he weren't playing aside a figure as dominant as Jones. The pair, in fact, has started 34 straight games together and rank one-two in career tackles among active Big Ten players.
Quickly noted: The Spartans have three interceptions in each of their last two games and a dozen on the season. "We're just hungry for the ball," says one of their safeties, Trenton Robinson. "As the weeks go on, we're just telling the D line to keep doing what you're doing because we're eating right now.". . . Not only that. Their defense as a whole has caused a total of 18 turnovers that have led to 64 points. . . Jon Misch, another of their linebackers, is also a classically-trained pianist whose favorite concert piece is Ballard in G Minor by Chopin. . . Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, their primary runners, have combined for 1,268 rushing yards (6.8 ypc) and 14 touchdowns. Kirk Cousins, their quarterback, has thrown for better than 200 yards in each of their last five games and for at least one touchdown in each of their last 14 games. And Dan Conroy, their place kicker, has this season made all 13 of his field goal and all 28 of his extra point attempts. . . Oh, right. The Spartans' game with the 'Cats will be their first this season outside the state of Michigan.
And finally, on a lighter note, some obscure trivia that just might be useful in a conversation about days gone by: There was, way back in the Ancient Olympics, an event called the Pankration and it made today's Ultimate Fighting look downright sissified. Only two rules governed this contest, no biting and no eye gouging, and it did end not until one of its competitors either died or raised his hand in surrender. This is where we come to those Spartans who lived by the motto, "Come home with your shield or on it." They, you see, had so many men die while competing in the Pankration that they ultimately forbid them from entering this event in the Olympics.
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