by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bobby McAllister took the final snap, dropped to one knee, and when the gun sounded, he rose with a smile. You couldn’t have painted a more fitting scene: Off your knees, Michigan State.

This morning, you are on top.

“What were you thinking as the game came to a finish?” someone asked McAllister, after the Spartans upset Ohio State, 13-7, Saturday to take sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

“I was just looking for those double zeroes on the clock,” said the quarterback, grinning. “Then I went looking for my offensive linemen so we could butt heads.”

“Butt heads?”

“We always butt heads after we win,” he said.

Well. OK. Butt away. For here was a Halloween afternoon in which Michigan State came dressed as itself. And won. Unforgiving defense. Offense by the feet. No, this was not the usual Big Battle that takes place down here — there was no maize and blue, no Bo Schembechler, no echoes of Woody.

So what?

Here, instead, was McAllister, like Baryshnikov in a roller derby, spinning and banging his way to a 15-yard touchdown. Here was Todd Krumm, the MSU free safety, stealing an Ohio State pass, killing a drive. Here was the Michigan State defense, late in the game, closing in on Buckeyes quarterback Greg Frey, swallowing him, spitting him out, and doing it again the very next play.

“Hey, I came here to play for the Roses,” said defensive lineman Travis Davis, who made a crucial sack in the fourth quarter that pushed the Buckeyes 10 yards backward. “I’ve been at MSU three years and things haven’t always gone so good. But now coach Perles has got the team where it should be. We just want to keep on going.”

Isn’t that the whole thing right there? The sweet taste of a turnaround? Let’s be honest. Michigan State has taken its lumps in recent years, from the coach to the players. Criticism flows easily — sometimes, perhaps, too easily. But then, MSU suffers the misfortune of sharing a state with the Michigan Wolverines. And when outsiders hear the words “Michigan” and
“college football” they immediately think of the feisty man with the same name as Derek.

“It’s been tough,” Perles admitted of the sometimes second- class status.
“We’ve kept our mouths shut. It’s not easy when you compete with the best in the land. Hey. Bo and the Michigan program are great. Earle Bruce and Ohio State are great. That’s pretty tough competition, you know.”

Yes. And Michigan State has now beaten both this year. The Spartans are undefeated in the conference (one tie with Illinois) and, with Indiana’s loss to Iowa Saturday, they now lead by one-half game. Victories in their last three games will assure them of their first Rose Bowl since 1966.

This is how they did it. By taking the hardest stone a team can throw — a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, a 79-yard pass from Tom Tupa to Everett Ross — and saying, “Yeah? So? What else you got?”

The answer was nothing. The MSU defense squashed the Buckeyes — in Ohio Stadium — like a safe from a fifth-floor window. Seven sacks. Two interceptions. When the final gun sounded, Ohio State had a grand total of two yards rushing.

Two yards?

“What happened there?” someone asked Davis.

“Percy Snow messed up,” he said, laughing.

See that? Jokes.

You can do that when you win.

So score one for the Spartans. They unloaded their candy bags this morning and found that Halloween brought them something they haven’t had since 1965. First place. Solo. At least we think it’s 1965. Frankly, nobody really remembers.

“This was the first time we’ve beaten Ohio State since what, 1974?” said Perles, his face still ruddy from the afternoon’s stress. “And it’s the first time we’ve won in this stadium since, what, 1971? It seems like everything’s been 16 or 17 years. It seems like we’ve been on a vacation for a while.”

“But now you’ve beaten Michigan and Ohio State in the same season,” someone pointed out.

Perles allowed a grin as he lifted a Coke to his lips. “Yeah,” he said, nodding slowly. “Not bad for a little fat guy from the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Not bad at all.

Now, true, the Spartans do not have a cakewalk to Pasadena. They have no assurances against Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin. They have no guarantees that fullback Lorenzo White (80 yards Saturday) will be in peak form, or that McAllister (83 yards rushing, 61 passing) will repeat his performance. They did not roll up points on Ohio State as they could have. They have no right to be boasting, no claim to destiny.

Not yet.

What they do have, however, is a moment. One that Spartans fans have been waiting for through years of Wolverines and Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. Off your knees — for this day, for this week. First place. A big win. A team that is hungry and promising.

“Did you allow yourself a sigh of satisfaction?” someone asked McAllister after his head-butting ritual had been completed.

“I kinda want to say yes,” he answered. “I’m gonna wait. And if we win the conference and get to the Rose Bowl, then I’m gonna sigh.”

He grinned and looked straight at the questioner. “A big sigh,” he said.

He won’t be alone. Run for the Roses Big Ten race Michigan State will win the conference title — and a trip to the Rose Bowl
— if it wins its next three games. Here are the remaining schedules for the conference contenders: TEAM RECORD GAMES REMAINING Michigan State 4-0-1 Purdue, Indiana, at Wisconsin Indiana 4-1-0 Illinois, at Michigan State, Purdue Iowa 3-2-0 at Northwestern, at Ohio State, Minnesota Ohio State 3-2-0 at Wisconsin, Iowa, at Michigan Michigan 3-2-0 at Minnesota, at Illinois, Ohio State Pac-10 race Seventh-ranked UCLA remained unbeaten in conference play Saturday, defeating Arizona State, 31-23. The Bruins will win the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl berth if they win their three remaining games, including the season-ender at Southern Cal. The Pac-10 standings and schedule: TEAM RECORD GAMES REMAINING UCLA 5-0-0 at Oregon State, Washington, at USC Southern Cal 4-1-0 Stanford, Arizona, UCLA Washington 3-2-0 at Arizona, at UCLA, Washington State Arizona 2-2-1 Washington, at USC, at Arizona State (Nov. 28) Arizona State 2-2-0 Oregon, at California, Arizona (Nov. 28) Stanford 2-3-0 at Southern Cal, at Oregon State, California Oregon 2-3-0 at Arizona St., at Washington St., at Oregon St. CUTLINE MSU coach George Perles leaves the field with a 13-7 victory Saturday as center David Martin, from Birmingham Brother Rice, celebrates.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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