EAST LANSING - Twelve months ago, Michigan State began carving out an identity for itself when the Spartans shocked Notre Dame with a game-winning fake field goal in overtime.
The gall to call that play in that situation - and the calm, clutch precision of those directly involved in the trick play known as "Little Giants" - seemed to carry over at other checkpoints in a season that would eventually result in the program's first Big Ten championship in 20 years, and an 11-2 record.
Michigan State was a surprising guest in the Top 10 a year ago. Now at 2-0 and ranked No. 15, the Spartans are bent on continuing the winning habit. To do so, they will have to get past an angry, frustrated yet talented Notre Dame team, which slipped to 0-2 after a second consecutive self-inflicted loss, this time at the hands of Michigan on Saturday night.
"I think they will come loaded for bear," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said after the Spartans' 44-0 victory over Florida Atlantic, and hours before ND's loss to Michigan. "I think they will be as up for our game as any game. They'll be ready for us and we'll have to be ready for them."
Identity Crisis at ND
Notre Dame was a popular choice for Top 10 status heading into the season. The Irish have rolled up more than 500 yards of offense in its first two games. However, Notre Dame also turned the ball over five times in each loss, giving reason for head coach Brian Kelly and his team to have a Come-to-Touchdown-Jesus meeting with itself.
"When we came out of preseason camp, we felt like we had the chance to be a good team," Kelly said during Sunday's weekly teleconference. "So when you put that modifier in front, 'chance to be a good team,' I can see those things in practice, I can see those things in the development of our players, but that chance to be a good team ... it's those turnovers, it's the little detail things. And until we can clean up those detail things, we can't be a good team."
The Irish are in the midst of a football identity crisis.
"I still believe in this team," Kelly said. "I still believe we're going to be a good football team. But the chance to be a good team is all the things that we're doing right now. We're not giving ourselves a chance to be a good team."
There are no problems with gridiron identity theft in East Lansing. In fact, Michigan State has enhanced its winning formula, to include a dominant defense - at least so far, statistically.
Of course the Spartans have enjoyed a soft early-season schedule, outlasting Division I-AA Youngstown State 28-6 in the opener, prior to Saturday's shutout of Florida Atlantic.
But the Spartans didn't merely blank Florida Atlantic, the Spartans stopped them dead - holding the Owls to just one first down and 48 yards of offense.
Youngstown State managed to possess the ball, run some clock, make some first downs, shorten the game and frustrate the Spartans for a while. MSU stuck to its bend-but-don't-break philosophy against spread teams and had success in keeping the Penguins out of the end zone.
As for Florida Atlantic, the only time the Owls made it past the 50-yard line was after one long kickoff return.
Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic barely attempted to challenge the Spartans with deep or intermediate passes - something the Spartans will see continuously at Notre Dame. But Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio doesn't discount the possibility that the Spartans are in the midst of strengthening their football identity as one with a newly hellish defense.
"I don't think one game makes it, but I thought we took steps to it in that direction today," Dantonio said after the Florida Atlantic game.
The Spartans did not generate any spectacular plays on defense against FAU. They simply got off blocks, hosted gaps and tackled ball carriers to the ground. Similar accountability will be necessary as a starting point in South Bend.
"Our next test, down at Notre Dame, we have to be fundamentally sound, we have to do things well down there and we have to build our identity," Dantonio said.
Dantonio would relish an identity of consistent accountability, mixed with sharp tackling and ball skills in the deep part of the field - something ND lacked in Ann Arbor.
"How we play next game, we have got to prepare and there is nothing given," Dantonio said. "You are always trying to find your identity as a football team. It is earned, so we will have to earn it next week."
'Cranked Up Already'
Michigan State waived its regular rule of letting the latest game sink in for 24 hours before looking ahead to the next game. The Spartans were already thinking about Notre Dame before the pads came off last Saturday.
"The boys are cranked up already," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said after coming out of the winning locker room, Saturday. "This will be a big one this week. Whew. Can't wait."
Notre Dame, regardless of its record, is an eagerly-awaited measuring stick for the Spartans, each year.
"Notre Dame is a team that always has the best recruits and everything like that," said senior left guard Joel Foreman, a former two-star recruit who has become a four-year starter, two-time All-Big Ten selection and Spartan captain. "They are a heck of a team to play every year, so you have to go down there with a purpose, with a mentality to put your hand on the line and try to take control."
Cousins said he didn't plan to alter is weekend routine, following the Florida Atlantic game.
"I go home and replay the plays that I could have done better and watch the other teams play and try to learn from those games, and then go in on Monday and start preparing for Notre Dame," Cousins said. "Certainly next week is going to be a great test for us. That's why you come to Michigan State, for games like this."
Sophomore linebacker Max Bullough is one of the few on the Spartan roster who selected Michigan State over an offer from Notre Dame. Bullough's grandfather on his mother's side, Jim Morse, played for the Irish. His grandfather on his father's side, Hank Bullough, played for Michigan State.
"That's huge for me," said Max Bullough. "Obviously it's a huge game for this program, but there is some extra incentive for me, and I can't really explain it. I'll probably be in tears for that game, I just love playing Notre Dame."
Bullough was forced onto the field last year against the Irish as a true freshman due to an injury to senior Eric Gordon.
"That helped me get my feet wet, and get into the game," Bullough said.
Then in overtime, Bullough was standing a few feet away from Dantonio and kicker Brett Swenson when Dantonio calmly called for the "Little Giants" play. Bullough is blessed with near-perfect football DNA, but he wasn't born with a good poker face. TV replays show Bullough turning quickly toward Dantonio after hearing the call with a look of slight surprise, making sure that he heard it right. Then Bullough went out and did his best on the field goal unit to make the play look as normal as possible, leading up to the snap.
The trick play, which resulted in holder Aaron Bates throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Charlie Gantt, was hailed at the time as perhaps the play-of-the-year in college football.
"I will never get sick of "Little Giants,'" Cousins said.
It became the push-off point and identity maker for a landmark 2010 season.
Michigan State's identity for the 2011 season is yet to be determined.