EVANSTON, Ill. -Aaron Bates was involved in more trick plays than any punter in college football heading into his senior season at Michigan State. But Bates will go down in Spartan lore because of the two special teams trick plays he has executed flawlessly during his team's remarkable 8-0 start in 2010.
The fake field goal to defeat Notre Dame in overtime is one of the most memorable plays of the 2010 college football season and perhaps the signature moment of Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio's four seasons at Michigan State. Bates' fourth-down pass to red-shirt freshman Bennie Fowler might not be as legendary as the touchdown pass he threw to Charlie Gantt against the Fighting Irish, but the trick play dubbed "Mousetrap" that kept alive a pivotal scoring drive in the fourth quarter might be as important as the now legendary play "Little Giants" run against Notre Dame.
Mousetrap helped keep alive Michigan State's hopes for a Big Ten championship. Ironically, there was a connection to Notre Dame at Saturday's game, as Northwestern welcomed back legendary Fighting Irish head coach and Wildcats alumnus Ara Parseghian for Homecoming. It was also the first time since Michigan State's dramatic win over Notre Dame that Dantonio was back on the sideline coaching his team since suffering a mild heart attack in the early morning hours following his team's win over the Fighting Irish.
The situation for Mousetrap: MSU faced fourth-and-6 at the Northwestern 31-yard line, trailing 24-14.
Going into a stiff wind, the Spartans were too far away to attempt a 48-yard field goal.
"We were going to go for it," Bates said. "Coach D kind of had doubts on the sideline and called a timeout and called us over and said, 'Lets run mousetrap.'
"Well we needed to take a 5-yard delay and give us a little bit more room to fit it in there. Plus that is what you do if you were punting it (take the penalty). We took the delay and he was wide open."
Nobody on the Michigan State sideline was thinking about Notre Dame when they called for "Mousetrap." They were thinking about Northwestern's tendency to bail off of an opponent's gunner, in this case Fowler, on safe punt to prevent the ball from being downed near the goal line.
It was a tendency that Michigan State noticed last year during prep for the Wildcats. And it was a tendency the Spartans would have exploited against Northwestern if they had needed to do so at Spartan Stadium in 2009.
"We felt like if they were in punt safe that their corner would drop the receiver after 15 yards because they didn't want to get hit with the punt," explained Dantonio.
Northwestern corner Justin Mabin said after the game that he is assigned to impede the gunner, Fowler, for the first few steps downfield. His main task is to hold up Fowler and make it difficult for Fowler to get down field and potentially down the ball inside the 10-yard line.
After carrying out the initial task, Mabin said he is assigned to duck out of bounds, to protect against the unlikely occurrence that a shanked punt might hit him, which would be ruled a fumble by the punt return.
"It's almost like (reading) cover-two, but a bigger (window)," Bates said.
On the read, Bates anticipated Mabin locking up with Fowler for a few steps and then releasing him. Bates began his throw as Fowler began to clear Mabin. Bates' pass might not have been pretty, but his read and release were right on time, like a quarterback.
Fowler came down with the catch along the right sideline, good for 21 yards and a first down at the Northwestern 15-yard line. MSU scored on the next play, cutting the lead to 24-21.
"We felt like we could sneak one in there, especially with Bates," Dantonio said. "Again, it is timing, it is execution, I just name the play."
The play is called "Mousetrap" by Michigan State because it requires a delay of game by the punting unit to convince the opponent of the intent to punt. The delay of game, according to Dantonio, is the cheese in the trap.
"We had to get them to take the cheese," said the fourth-year Spartan head coach.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he and his team did not expect a fake punt.
"You've got to give credit where credit is due," Fitzgerald said. "They put (a) receiver in and we knew Bates could throw it, so we talked all week that there was going to be a fake punt where they're probably going to throw it but did we expect that fake punt? No. We'd never seen it before, so kudos to them."
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said the following when asked about "Mousetrap."
"We took the delay of game on purpose," said Narduzzi. "I don't think anybody thought after taking a delay of game that you would go for it. A heck of a job by Coach Dantonio and Coach Tressel, our special teams coordinator. Coach Dantonio is a guru of fakes."
Fowler, a red-shirt freshman, would not tip off Northwestern to a fake. The former Detroit Country Day star has been the gunner on punt team all year long. Saturday's win over Northwestern was the first game Fowler had been a featured part of Michigan State's offensive gameplan. Fowler had as big a role as he did because starting wide receiver Keshawn Martin pulled a hamstring in the first quarter.
Fowler finished the game two catches for 27 yards. He also scored the first touchdown of his Michigan State career on a 21-yard end around that is normally run by Martin.
"Two huge plays in the game for Bennie Fowler," Dantonio said. "Keshawn gets hurt and he comes in and makes a huge touchdown run. Then on the fourth down play I felt like we just had to take a shot. If we didn't get it, it was going to be their ball on the 35-yard line."
Bates did get it.
"Once again Aaron Bates bails me out," said Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. "It's unbelievable. He's got some magic in him too, I think."
Cousins had some magic as well. The junior quarterback threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns including a 9-yard pass to junior receiver B.J. Cunningham, who caught a ball that was tipped by a Northwestern defender to tie the game 26-26 before kicker Dan Conroy's kick.
Bates joked afterward that throwing the pass to Fowler was easier than kicking into the wind. Throwing into the wind, however, was not easy.
"Great call by Coach D, great catch by Bennie," said Bates. "We didn't really want to have to run it into the wind like that. It was a long throw into that breeze, but it worked out."
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