The grand finale has arrived! Last week, Little Giants, the LJ Scott touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game and the Cotton Bowl Victory over Baylor secured their spots on No’s. 4-6 of the Top 10 MSU football moments in the Dantonio era.
The Kirk Cousins Hail Mary, Michael Geiger windmill, blocked field goal in the Outback Bowl and minus-48 rushing yards against Michigan made the cut as the final four spots in the ranking two weeks ago.
Now it is time to see which teams will take the bronze, silver and gold medals as the top three moments in the Mark Dantonio era at Michigan State.
3. Trouble with the Snap
On Oct. 17, 2015, Michigan State defeated archrival Michigan in legendary fashion. The 12th-ranked Wolverines hosted the seventh-ranked Spartans in the first clash between top-tier coaches Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio.
Although the Spartans pounded the Wolverines in total yardage, number of first downs and yards given up in penalties, Michigan State never held a lead for the first 59:50 of play.
But 10 seconds were all the Spartans needed.
After a fourth down incompletion by MSU quarterback Connor Cook, Michigan took over on downs with 1:42 remaining, leading 23-21. The Spartans stuffed the Wolverine offense three straight times, bringing up fourth down with 10 seconds left. A clean punt was all that U-M needed to essentially win the game.
But as Michigan punter Blake O’Neill held out his arms to receive the snap, the ball bounced off his hands and rolled onto the turf. The entire Big House gasped. O’Neill picked up the ball and attempted a second try at the kick, but not before he was flooded with Spartans who mowed down the rugby-style punter and swiped the ball.
The ball landed into the arms of defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson, who carried the ball 38 yards straight to the house with no time left on the clock, resulting in a 27-23 victory for MSU.
Many blamed the loss on O’Neill, but it was shortly pointed out that Harbaugh’s punt formation had two flankers on both ends of the field, whose roles were presumably to tackle the return man.
Problem is, there was no return man. Instead, the Spartans placed every man up front to block the kick. Had Harbaugh been in max protect, the Wolverines would have likely won the game.
Few, if any, games in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy were as fueling as the 2015 matchup. O’Neill, who had a fantastic game leading up to the fumble, was unfairly bombarded with hatred to the point of receiving death threats.
The picture of one Michigan fan with his arms on his head went viral and even appeared on Halloween Jack-O’-Lanterns. The legendary call by ESPN announcer Sean McDonough was memorized by every Spartan fan from “he has trouble with the snap” all the way to the voice crack on “game.”
MSU reporters Jack Ebling and Joe Rexrode even wrote a book about the game called “The Perfect :10.”
The Spartans proceeded to finish the season 12-2, with a victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game followed by an annihilating loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
2. 2013 Big Ten Championship Game
Ever since its last appearance in 1988, Michigan State had chased the coveted Rose Bowl. As Dantonio slowly put MSU football on the map, fans realized that this dream could become a reality. But first, the Spartans needed to win the Big Ten.
In 2010, Dantonio won his first share of the Big Ten Title along with Wisconsin and Ohio State, although the Buckeyes later vacated their wins that year due to self-imposed sanctions. This was the last year before the creation of the Big Ten Championship Game, so a three-way tie meant that the team with the highest BCS ranking punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl.
Michigan State had the edge over Wisconsin in head-to-head matchup and did not play Ohio State. Nevertheless, the Badgers had the highest ranking and represented the Big Ten in Pasadena.
In spite of the snub, 2010 served as a realization that a Rose Bowl berth was possible under Dantonio. It gave a taste of what was to come.
In 2011, Michigan State came one step closer to Pasadena. The Spartans went 7-1 in conference play, won the Legends Division and earned a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. However, with two minutes remaining, the Spartans lost a shot at a last-second drive due to a running into the kicker flag, resulting in a 42-39 loss.
Michigan State’s third attempt at the elusive Rose Bowl was in 2013. Once again, MSU punched their ticket to Indy after going 8-0 in conference play. The one-loss Spartans had a gargantuan matchup against undefeated Ohio State, who was one victory away from a national championship berth. But the Spartans had other plans.
Connor Cook posted 304 yards and put the Spartans up 17-0 in the second quarter. But Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller led a storming comeback with 101 passing yards and 142 more on the ground to score 24 unanswered points.
With 5:45 remaining and MSU up three, Miller rushed to his right on fourth-and-two, making a lunge toward field goal range. But MSU linebacker Denicos Allen stuffed him for no gain, putting the Spartans in control. MSU running back Jeremy Langford sealed the deal with a 26-yard touchdown rush with 2:16 remaining. The Spartans won 34-24.
Defeating the second-ranked Buckeyes in Indy was a stunning upset that sent a message to the rest of the nation. This victory proved that MSU could grind it out against the top teams in the country. It also sent the Spartans to Pasadena, achieving a goal that has encompassed every Spartan fan’s mind for years.
1. Kyler Elsworth Tackle, Rose Bowl Victory
It was the 100th anniversary of the granddaddy of them all. Spartan fans traveled by the thousands to Pasadena and practically took over the city. “Go Green, Go White” chants erupted across the streets of Los Angeles. Billboards welcoming the Spartans were erected throughout downtown Hollywood. And Dantonio was ready to coach the biggest game of his career on the first day of 2014.
After three straight Rose Bowl victories for the Pac-12, each squandered by Wisconsin, Michigan State was prepared to bring triumph back to the Big Ten. But the defending Rose Bowl champion Stanford Cardinal awaited them.
The Cardinal opened with a 10-0 lead following a 16-yard rush by star running back Tyler Gaffney and a 34-yard field goal by Jordan Williamson. The Spartans crawled back to within three, but a pick-six thrown by Connor Cook put the Cardinal back up 17-7.
With under 30 seconds remaining in the half, Cook found fullback Trevon Pendleton for a short touchdown pass, shrinking the Stanford lead to three at halftime.
The Spartan defense entered total lockdown mode in the second half, not allowing the Cardinal to score until Williamson made another field goal with 4:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. But by then, the Spartans had already scored another 10 points with a Michael Geiger 31-yard field goal and 25-yard touchdown pass to Tony Lippett.
With 2:40 remaining, Stanford attempted one final drive, down 24-20. But on fourth-and-inches on their own 34-yard line, MSU linebacker Kyler Elsworth leaped over the offensive line and dove into Stanford ball carrier Ryan Hewitt. The Spartans proceeded to win Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years.
The Elsworth tackle is a symbolic moment for Spartan Nation. First off, Elsworth was not a starting linebacker; Max Bullough headlined the Spartans at that position. Bullough was an excellent player, but his skills as a leader and play-caller made him the heart of the defense.
However, Dantonio suspended Bullough for the Rose Bowl for breaking team rules, leaving Elsworth as the next man up. This handed Elsworth the opportunity to reach legendary status in the Spartan community, making the game-clinching tackle on fourth down.
The Elsworth tackle also symbolized everything MSU football stood for. The Spartans were never the most talented team, but they were tough and defensive-minded. They would play any team at any time and physically beat them up.
They won games with resilience, strength and grit. When it came to a fourth down and inches, Stanford could not get one measly yard at the hands of a second-string linebacker leading the best defense in the nation.
The Rose Bowl victory propelled the Spartans to finish No. 3 in the nation with a 13-1 record. Further, it made MSU football relevant at a national level. It placed a spotlight on a Michigan State team that was in the shadows of its rivals for years. MSU was finally a powerhouse.
The Rose Bowl was the biggest win of Dantonio’s career, making it the greatest MSU football moment in the Dantonio era. It was not a championship, but it felt like one. The long-term goal Spartan fans had anticipated for years was finally achieved. Unless Dantonio wins the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl will go down as the high point of his reign.