This a three-part series detailing the top 10 moments for Michigan State football since Mark Dantonio took over as coach in 2007. For No’s. 7-10, click here.
Spartan fans are likely pressed with anticipation for some positive MSU football news amidst an agonizing offseason.
Last week’s release of the Top 10 moments in the Dantonio era contained four fond memories for Spartan fans, including the Kirk Cousins Hail Mary, Michael Geiger windmill, blocked field goal in the Outback Bowl and minus-48 rushing yards against Michigan.
This week’s segment will illustrate No’s. 4-6 of the ranking, followed by the awarding of the bronze, silver and gold medals one week later for No’s. 1-3.
6. Cotton Bowl Victory over Baylor
The 2015 Cotton Bowl–that is, the first edition of the 2015 Cotton Bowl–was a special victory for the Spartans not only because of who they beat, but how they beat them.
The Baylor Bears paraded the classic Big 12 offense-heavy style of play. MSU star quarterback Connor Cook tried to keep up with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, but he fell behind early with little help from his defense. Cook finished the day with 314 yards, but that was nothing compared to Petty’s masterpiece of 550 yards and three touchdowns. Petty helped put Baylor up 20 points late in the game.
But then the fourth quarter happened.
MSU’s defensive coordinator and current Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi coached the final game of his career at MSU against the Bears. Narduzzi’s defense had no answer for Baylor, so he came down from the press box late in the game and coached from the sidelines to rally the Spartans.
From there, the Baylor offense stalled. Narduzzi charged the Bears with an array of unique blitzes, putting Petty at constant gunpoint. The result was an output of minus-20 rushing yards for the Bears’ offense and five sacks on Petty. The improvement on defense gave the Spartans an opportunity to rally from behind.
With 1:21 remaining, Baylor tried for a 44-yard field goal that would have essentially won the game. But MSU defensive end Marcus Rush had other plans. Rush got a hand on the ball, and defensive back RJ Williamson scooped it up for a huge return.
From there, Cook and company led a drive with 1:05 remaining down six, which included a fourth-and-10 completion to Tony Lippett on a fade route and a touchdown catch by Keith Mumphery with under twenty seconds left. The Spartans proceeded to win the game 42-41 after a Riley Bullough interception sealed the deal. It was the highest-scoring Cotton Bowl ever.
This victory ranked the Spartans in the top five for the second straight season. It was also Dantonio’s fourth 11-win season.
5. LJ Scott Touchdown in Big Ten Championship Game
After just missing the College Football Playoff the previous year, the Spartans were determined to secure their names in the top four during the 2015 season.
But for the Spartans to complete their miraculous season in the playoff, they had to go through the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes in Indianapolis.
The game was played in old-school fashion, charged by power running and defense. Iowa had the lone big pass of the game at the end of the third quarter, an 85-yard touchdown bomb from CJ Beathard to Tevaun Smith to put the Hawkeyes ahead, 13-9.
With 9:31 remaining, the Spartans began a gigantic drive stretching from their own 24-yard line. With Connor Cook playing off his game due to a nagging shoulder injury, the game fell in the hands of then-true freshman running back LJ Scott.
Cook kept the chains moving on a fourth-and-two option play before Scott scored the go-ahead touchdown on a second-effort lunge to the end zone. The entire drive took 9:04 and included 22 plays, the most in the FBS that season. It was arguably the greatest drive in the Dantonio era.
Scott’s go-ahead touchdown helped secure Dantonio’s third Big Ten Title. It sent the Spartans to the second-annual College Football Playoff where they were obliterated by Alabama.
4. Little Giants
Michigan State has a rich history against Notre Dame. But few games in the chronicle of the friendly rivalry will go down greater than the 2010 matchup.
A back-and-forth game between the two programs went into overtime, tied at 28. The Fighting Irish struck first with a 33-yard field goal hit by David Ruffer. The Spartans took over for the next drive, needing a field goal to tie or touchdown to win.
But the stingy Irish defense pushed the Spartans back four yards following a Kirk Cousins sack on third down. Kicker Dan Conroy stepped in on fourth down to attempt the biggest field goal of his life.
Or so it seemed.
Dantonio reached into his bag of tricks and called for a fake field goal. The ball was snapped into the hands of holder Aaron Bates. He originally looked toward Le’Veon Bell, but he was covered. Bates then rolled to his right and found a wide-open Charlie Gantt for the game-winning touchdown.
This was a program-defining win for Dantonio. Michigan State, hardly a powerhouse heading into 2010, wasn’t supposed to show up the Irish. Few imagined that a team like MSU could pull off an overtime victory with a last-second trick play against a nationally renowned Notre Dame team.
However, this game was not without controversy. Looking at the replay, it appears that the play clock expired just before Bates hiked the football. That said, Gantt was so wide open that it is likely that the results would have been the same from five yards back.
The play was coined “Little Giants” by Dantonio because he thought it looked like something out of the movie “Little Giants,” a comedy about a pee wee football team.
A unique part of this story as that Dantonio was hospitalized the next morning after suffering a mild heart attack. He returned three weeks later to coach against Michigan, where the Spartans defeated their archrival 34-17. The Spartans proceeded to go 11-1 in conference play and won a share of the Big Ten Title for the first time since 1990.