EAST LANSING - Proving there really is a difference between empathy and sympathy, members of Michigan State's football team can understand the pain of Northwestern's season because the Spartans' went through it last year.
MSU (9-1, 6-0 Big Ten) lost five games last season by a total of 13 points - the difference between an okay season and a great season.
Northwestern, the No. 13 Spartans noon time opponent on Saturday has suffered a similar fate in terms of close and gut-wrenching losses.
Entering Saturday's game, the Wildcats (4-6, 0-6) have dropped six straight, all in the Big Ten. And among that streak of misery, they have suffered just about every kind of misfortune possible. There have been two setbacks in overtime, one by Hail Mary and two of Northwestern's disappointments have ended by three points.
Despite the understanding of Northwestern's situation, MSU's approach to pursuing a victory that would make them the sole owners of a Legends Division crown will not be deterred, according to senior linebacker Max Bullough
"That's something that, a lot of guys on this team, we can relate to,'' Bullough said. "It's tough being in that situation . Their backs are against the wall and they're going to come out swinging. That's how we were last year at Minnesota (when MSU needed one more win to become bowl eligible). We weren't going to be denied that game and I think Northwestern has a similar mindset. But you know, we're playing for something to. We've got a lot on the line here as well so we're still in fight mode. We're not chillin' yet.''
Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti suggested that Northwestern could benefit like the Spartans did from last season's tough campaign but added that MSU would not be the team's to give the Wildcats hope.''
"I don't care about their record because this is a great defense, a great group of guys and they're going to give it their all, as we are,'' Fonoti said. "Experiencing something like that last year is what gave us that hunger and that mindset, 'that we refuse to let it happen again.' Coach D always talked about the inches in those losses and I think we've made up for that and more up to this point. So we're just going to continue to have the mindset of 1-0 each week.''
Meet The Laptop
If Bullough is known at ''The Computer'' because of his vast knowledge of the defense and what positions the members of that defense need to be in, then junior safety Kurtis Drummond, one of MSU top three tacklers deserves to be referred to as a mini computer or a portable laptop.
Bullough was adamant about Drummond's football acumen and the fact that his secondary teammate doesn't get enough credit for his on-field knowledge.
"He knows what he's doing, he does it well and he communicates well,'' Bullough said. "Him and I talk all of the time on the field. He's just a football player. He's smart, he communicates well and he makes plays. Kurtis is really smart. He's a guys who could make all of the calls if I wasn't in there, no problem, and we would be fine.''
While Drummond, who has seemingly always had a nose for the ball, downplays his individual success, it is obvious that his study habits have made him an essential contributor in the overall success of MSU's defense.
"I just retain what the coaches say. That's really all it is,'' Drummond said. "Coach (Harlon) Barnett and Coach (Pat) Narduzzi know a lot and I just try and pick their brains and listen to them as much as possible. The more you know, the easier it is to play.''
And if you think Nebraska's 3rd quarter touchdown pass which was scored by wide receiver Kenny Bell, one that had Drummond isolated in a one-on-one situation with a wideout was evidence of a chink in the armor of MSU's nationally-recognized defense, both Drummond and Bullough would advise against enjoying that little ray of hope.
"I'm not sure (if getting me lined up against a wide receiver) is in people's gameplans, because we have great corners, but if I'm the next guy up (for team's) to attack, then they can come on. Teams are realizing more and more that we have lockdown islands (in Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes) and they really don't want to mess with that so the next thing is to try the safeties. So if that's what they want to do, more power to them, that's more of an opportunity for me to make plays. I'm up for the challenge, whatever it is. I'm sure whatever they think is a weakness, we'll be able to handle it.''
Bullough just looks at it as you would expect any computer that you input variables into to devise a program for success.
"I think teams have not necessarily gone away from what they do but they try and gameplan us and try to play us more so than their own identity on offense and I think that's something we've got to adjust to,'' Bullough said. "Every adjustment their quarterback makes, there's something I can do or we can say to counteract that, so that's on us.''
Don't get any ideas
Freshman kicker Michael Geiger is under no illusions about his role even after the success of MSU's "Charlie Brown" fake field goal play in the victory over Nebraska, which clinched a share of the Legends Division crown last Saturday.
"We're not complete non athletes but definitely compared to defensive linemen who you'd have to go up against running up the middle like that, we're a little bit smaller in comparison,'' Geiger said of his role on the play. "We do like to think of ourselves as athletes, just a little bit smaller size.''
And as the lead blocker, similar to the role of someone like fullback Trevon Pendleton, Geiger looks at his contribution on the play as one that was steeped in results and not aesthetics.
"I get credit for a good attempt at a block but I don't think I get credit for an actual block,'' he said. "I think you have to make contact for it to be a block. I got in the way and I think that's what I was supposed to do.''
Of course, one of the best parts of the execution may have been Geiger's reaction, once the play was actually called by MSU's head coach Mark Dantonio.
"We basically knew the whole game that (Dantonio) really wanted to call this fake and utilize it and I knew it was a crucial part in the game, and my reaction was, 'we better get the first (down) because it's a close game.' But I have faith in our linemen obviously and Sads Mike Sadler) running up the middle behind them, he obviously had some faith too.''
Geiger followed up by giving some perspective on his time in the trenches. The trenches? When was the last time a kicker talked being ''in the trenches?''
"Digging your own grave maybe,'' Geiger said. "But the last time I even thought about being in the trenches was high school so I can't tell you that I've not thought about it much up here. To be honest, even in high school, I was really never used as a lead blocker. I always played receiver. I mean, I've hit dudes before but not a Nebraska Blackshirt.''
Thanks for the bye week
Dantonio was asked the timing of both of his team's bye weeks during the breaks this season and he responded with answers you would expect, referring to guys getting a chance to get refreshed and rejuvenated mentally, and the chances for members of his team to rest and heal some bumps and bruises.
But the biggest thing that may have come out of the Spartans' two off weeks was the chance to fine tune and refine sets on both offense and defense, add some new formations, sure up execution and off course, work on a few trick plays.
While Geiger said ''Charlie Brown'' was introduced earlier in the season, the bye week gave MSU a chance to perfect it as much as possible before using it in the game against the Huskers.
"We're always working on our repertoire of tricks but definitely we spent some time on it in the bye week, (with Dantonio) saying, special teams are going to make some big plays this weekend (against Nebraska) and then obviously during preparation week before the game we definitely repped it a lot,'' Geiger said.
Added Mike Sadler: "Typically the fakes are on a week-to-week basis based on what we're seeing from the other team. (But Charlie Brown) was put in during the bye week.''
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