EAST LANSING — In the end, nothing could hold them back, not history, not the critics, certainly not the Indiana defenders. There was an end zone to reach and California somewhere beyond it, and so the Spartans players charged, dove, banged, twisted, scored, scored, and scored again, until there was nothing left, no way they could lose, and with the clock down to its final seconds the crowd stormed the field in one glorious wave of celebration:
Michigan State is in the Rose Bowl.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” said a beaming Lorenzo White, a rose in his hand, after piling up an incredible 292 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan State’s 27-3 victory Saturday that clinched the Big Ten title. “And now, we did it. I may seem calm talking to you here. But if you saw me behind closed doors. . . . “
Who needs that? We saw him center stage. Saw all of them — this whole crazy Spartans team, now headed to Pasadena for the first time in 22 years. They smothered the Indiana Hoosiers, swallowed them whole and dusted off the crumbs. Outrushed them? Try a 10-to-1 ratio. Intercepted them? Try three times. Controlled them? Try a field goal. One measly field goal. These were the two best teams in the Big Ten? Where was the other one?
“In the defensive huddle I looked into the eyes of my teammates and it was like a nightmare they were so intense,” said MSU tackle Travis Davis afterward. “We lined up, and the Indiana guys were looking at us like, ‘Ho, man, those guys are crazy, they’re just crazy. . . . ‘ “
“It’s fantastic,” said an elated Todd Krumm, the senior free safety, whose two interceptions were typical of an MSU defense that refused to blink. “You know, back in high school I had people say to me, ‘Why didn’t you go to Michigan instead of State?’ Well, I came here because I wanted to be with a building program, and I wanted the Rose Bowl to be something really special. Now we’re going. And those people who questioned me? They’ve turned Spartan green now.”
Nice. This is what school spirit is all about. Forget, for a moment, your personal loyalties. This was a terrific story: a team nobody expected, a team that had taken its licks, a team whose coach, George Perles, had been questioned and insulted and who, at times, had only his players on his side.
Season after season, the Spartans saw their petals of hope plucked off by destiny. She loves them? No. She loves them not. And not. And not again.
“We never lost faith,” Krumm said.
Here is what a little faith can do:
Here, in his last home game, was White, once embarrassingly overhyped for the Heisman Trophy, now running as if he had posed for it, cutting, twisting, gulping yardage. Here was Krumm, who turned down a baseball contract to play his senior season, picking off a pass in the end zone to kill an Indiana threat. Here was Blake Ezor — whose father called Perles from Las Vegas in hopes the coach would recruit the kid — returning the second-half kickoff 90 yards and all but sealing the game before sunset. Here was Bobby McAllister, a kid from Florida who has never been to California, dancing and dashing and leaving the Indiana defense dizzy. . . .
And here, of course, was Perles himself. Blue collar? Look at that face. That belly. His conversation is, well, down to earth. He is not a stylist. “A fat guy from the Pittsburgh Steelers” is the way he describes himself. And yet he deserves this win and this title perhaps more than any of those neat, slim, tight- lipped coaches, for here is a guy whose love for the college game — and for this college in particular — brought him to this job, at a pay cut, after being overlooked twice before. In his five years here, people have criticized his plans, called for his resignation, and even, wrongfully, insulted his intelligence.
“I’ve had some tough times,” he admitted, his hair matted with sweat, his eyes flicking between the reporters and the Big Ten trophy he had just received. “Sometimes they’ve been fair, sometimes questionable. But through it all, the kids stayed behind me. . . . We built this, it wasn’t easy, and now we gotta try and stay there.”
He took a deep breath. A few minutes earlier he had been running through a frenzied crowd on the Spartans’ field, toilet paper raining down, goalposts coming unplugged, thousands of green-and-white figures slapping and cheering and tossing off the frustration of all those losing seasons. “I was getting beat up pretty good by some pretty nice people,” Perles said.
“Will you observe the normal routine after this win?” he was asked.
“Well, I may not make 9:30 mass tomorrow morning. But I’ll tell you this. Not too many of you guys are gonna have a better time than me tonight.”
And why not? A Rose Bowl. The first since the days of Duffy Daugherty, who died less than two months ago, when the Spartans were 1-1 and considered mere also-rans in the Big Ten race. A memorial service was scheduled by Daugherty’s widow, just by coincidence, for Saturday morning. Perles attended. “Who would have thought it would come on the day Michigan State won the Big Ten?” he said, nodding at the irony.
Consider it, then, a win for tradition. For patience.
And consider it a win for the “other guys” of the world, the kid brothers, the co-stars, the understudies. Let’s face it. Michigan State, by geography, must shack up in the same state as the mighty Michigan Wolverines. And for a while now — a long while — the Spartans have been sleeping in the bottom bunk.
Not this time.
Say no more about the “weak” conference this year. Say no more about this season’s Big Ten being some sort of Big Nine- And-A-Half. It is not Michigan State’s job to make its opponents stronger; merely to beat them. And that, it has done. To Michigan. To Ohio State. To Indiana.
“I’m flying high, man!” yelled wide receiver Andre Rison, who caught a beautiful 22-yard touchdown pass in a flurry of second quarter offense that clinched the victory. “I’m so happy, I can’t even remember the game right now.”
He’ll remember soon enough, while he’s buying sunglasses and tanning oil. And this, when he remembers, is what he should know: Whomever MSU plays in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1, whatever the odds, whatever the outcome, there is no snuffing out the magical moment Saturday when that clock read 00:00, and the stands spilled onto the field, and the story for this big school near the state’s capital was suddenly written anew.
“There was so much joy and happiness,” said Krumm, his eyes almost misty.
“It’s just a feeling we haven’t had around here for a long, long time.”
Go West, young Spartans.
Destiny, she loves you after all.
CUTLINE Andre Rison celebrates after catching a 22-yard pass from Bobby McAllister for MSU’s second touchdown.