The aftermath of Michigan State’s rainy regular season-ending 31-17 win over Northwestern and my first visit ever to Ryan Field in Evanston: My clothes are all hung in the shower with care, with hopes that they will be dry again sometime this year.
If I wasn’t already a fully blooded Chicago Spartan before today, I am now. It takes a pretty special level of devotion, especially when you’re supposed to be old enough to know better, to watch your college team play in a steady rain on Thanksgiving Saturday with a cool breeze whipping in off Lake Michigan.
But this has been a very special Michigan State team. And it would have taken more than a little rain to keep me from joining the thousands of other green-and-white clad MSU fans who trekked out to say thanks today.
Just two years ago, the Spartans still were struggling to end decades out of the national limelight as Coach Mark Dantonio labored to produce a contending program in East Lansing.
Then last year, quite suddenly, the team blossomed to an 11-1 regular season record, and a 7-1 mark in the Big 10 that made them co-champions with Wisconsin and Ohio State.
And with today’s win, Michigan State finished this regular season with a 10-2 overall record, and again 7-1 in the Big 10, good for the outright title in the conference’s new Legends Division — and a spot in next Saturday’s first-ever Big 10 football championship game in Indianapolis against Wisconsin, a rematch of the Oct. 22 Homecoming thriller that the Spartans won, 37-31, on a game-ending “Hail Mary” touchdown pass.
So that adds up to a 21-3 two-year record, 14-2 in the Big 10, for a program that was 4-8 as recently as 2006, the last year before Dantonio became head coach.
Today’s game showcased the senior stars who played such a big role in this turnaround.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a perfect strike to senior Keshawn Martin near the end of the first half that set up the touchdown that put MSU ahead, 10-3. Then, after a quick defensive stop, Martin — whose hands, speed and moves make him, I believe, a potential first-round NFL draft pick — fielded a punt on one bounce at his own 43 yard line, sprinted around the right end and then up the sideline for the score that built the halftime lead to 17-3.
And both times that Northwestern scored touchdowns in the second half to make it close, Cousins responded by connecting with senior B.J. Cunningham — the Spartans’ record holder for career receptions — including a remarkable game-clinching play in which he juggled the ball twice with a Northwestern defender on his back for 12 yards before pulling it in as he crossed the goal line. In the process, Cousins, already the winningest quarterback in school history, broke the standing MSU career record for touchdown passes.
Yet, while these impact players will be hard to replace next season, it must be noted again that this very accomplished Michigan State team is also very young. Among the standout underclassmen today was Le’Veon Bell, a rising star at running back, who gain 86 yards in 16 carries, a 5.4 yard per carry average. Bell scored that touchdown that put MSU ahead by 10-3 on a 7-yard run in which he faked a Northwestern defender out of his shoes and jogged into the end zone untouched.
Non-seniors also made most of the key plays on defense, including six quarterback sacks.
So the Spartans move on to the Big 10 championship game. It will take a heck of an effort to beat the very talented Wisconsin team for the second time this season — the Badgers asserted themselves in a must-win game today, crushing Penn State by 45-7 to claim the Leaders Division title. But Michigan State finds itself one game away from the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season.
And that, in and of itself, is something for the MSU faithful to feel thankful for this weekend.