Decisions appearing heroic in hindsight were often nothing more than calculated gambles in the moment when it comes to coaching maneuvers in college football. No matter what sixth-year Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio goes on to accomplish in his career, he’ll always be known, at least in part, for pulling the trigger on the gutsy “Little Giants” fake field goal in the closing seconds of overtime against Notre Dame in 2010 in East Lansing, Mich.
Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio is routinely asked about the "Little Giants" play that pushed MSU past Notre Dame in overtime in 2010
As the 10th-ranked Spartans get set to host No. 20 Notre Dame again Saturday, Dantonio was asked about the infamous play that resulted in holder Aaron Bates taking the snap, standing up and hitting Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown and a 34-31 victory. Dantonio, who suffered a mild heart attack after that game, had a much lower heart rate Tuesday afternoon when recalling what went into the decision to take the pressure off redshirt sophomore kicker Dan Conroy and place it squarely on himself.
“No, I’ve never done that,” he said. “Not many have probably. As I said before, it’s about the timing of the play. We had worked on it. We had gotten sacked and were just outside what I thought was a for sure, makeable field goal. I felt like we were better than 50 percent if we executed the fake. I really, really felt like we had a cool customer — a guy under the center taking the snaps in Aaron Bates, who we had used on a lot of fakes in his previous four years … at least four or five.
“I felt like he was a guy that wouldn’t panic if things broke down. That’s exactly what happened. Things broke down a little bit and he had to move right or left. He had to move right, stayed composed and delivered.”
For fans on both sides of this rivalry, Dantonio’s comments a few minutes later will likely be interpreted as heresy.
“It was just a game; it’s just a game,” he said.
There are a number of players and coaches for both MSU and Notre Dame that were apart of that epic game, as well as the Irish’s 31-13 victory last year in South Bend. Bates is now an intern with the Spartans, and former MSU fullback/linebacker Josh Rouse (2006-08), who knows plenty about the matchup, is an offensive graduate assistant with the program.
Former ND assistant Lorenzo Guess is one of few to have a perspective from each side. Guess, a safety for the Spartans (1998-2001) under then-position coach Dantonio, spent 2010-11 as Notre Dame’s assistant director of strength and conditioning. He took the same position at Michigan State in June.
“Lorenzo Guess was here when I was here before and played directly for me and had some big moments as well,” Dantonio said. “He came from Notre Dame back to Michigan State, so that’s an added plus for us from that perspective, just having been on the inside and knowing the rivalry on that side of it. That’s a positive.
“I think our players can draw from those things, and they can recognize that [those coaches] have been there. There’s a respect factor built in there because those guys have been there and done that. Anytime you have young people, [and those coaches] are still young people, that have sort of gone ahead of others, it sort of paves the way a little bit and gives them some selfish yearns.”
Bell blowing up
Junior tailback Le’Veon Bell (6-2, 244 pounds) has taken the onus off first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell (junior) so far this season for the 2-0 Spartans. Bell, who bullied his way into the starting lineup midway through the 2011 season and came up just short of 1,000 yards rushing, has already recorded 280 yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries combined in wins over Boise State and Central Michigan.
“I think Le’Veon has always had great ability, great vision, great cutting ability and the ability to get positive yards after contact,” Dantonio said. “That’s one of the things he’s done since he’s come here. I think the more experience a guy gets, the more confidence he gets and the more instinctive he becomes.
“I think Coach [Brad] Salem does a tremendous job in terms of articulating the finer points of a running back’s play, or exactly where to press, what hole to press or what gap to press in certain runs, the pass protection and techniques and all the different things and nuances of playing the game. Inevitably, it comes down to the player being able to execute. Le’Veon is able to do that at a very, very high level.”