Fake field goal against Nebraska another risky call that works for MSU

LINCOLN, NEB. — Add “Charlie Brown” to the litany of riverboat gambler Mark Dantonio’s trickery on special teams.

But punter Mike Sadler is fortunate that a crucial fourth-quarter fake field goal didn’t turn him into another “Peanuts” character, Pig-Pen, wearing a face full of filth for not checking out of the fake when he noticed a change in Nebraska’s defensive alignment. The play was designed to go either right or left, depending on where the defensive tackle lined up.

The Spartans’ punter instead took it up the middle, finding a detour on what should have been a dead end.

Sadler fought for what might have been the biggest 3 yards of the afternoon for the Spartans. He kept alive a drive that ultimately broke the Cornhuskers’ back with a game-winning and Legends Division-clinching touchdown.

The moment symbolized the Spartans’ season.

“That play doesn’t work a year ago,” middle linebacker Max Bullough said. “But we’ve learned to better fight through the adversity that’s going to happen during games. Mike was determined to make that play work. It was the turning point for us.”

It certainly appears that the Big Ten will get its wish — an Ohio State-Michigan State conference championship matchup in Indianapolis next month that might propel the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes a little higher in the final rankings with a conference title.

The Spartans’ 41-28 win against Nebraska assured them a share of the Legends Division championship. Only Minnesota can possibly leapfrog over Michigan State, but that would require the surprisingly resilient Golden Gophers to win their final two games — against Wisconsin and the Spartans in East Lansing — with Michigan State losing its last two games.

That’s unlikely.

You can crown Michigan State.

“Any way you cut it,” Dantonio said, “it is a Legends championship. Any way you cut it. Those are positives. Those are big positive steps for a program from when we came here. It shows that we have a solid foundation.”

This was Dantonio’s most important game in his seven years at Michigan State — even more important than playing for a shot at the Rose Bowl in the inaugural Big Ten championship game two years ago — because the expectations were never higher than they were approaching this pivotal game.

The Spartans were almost a touchdown favorite — on the road against a team they had never defeated in seven previous attempts. The vast majority of national analysts predicted a Michigan State victory, believing this was that rare team capable of living up to their high


It’s another step forward in the evolution of a program that craves being taken seriously.

They expected quarterback Connor Cook to make the huge third-down completions he did — three came on third-and-10 or longer. They expected running back Jeremy Langford to carry the heavy running load — 151 yards on 32 carries. They expected Sadler to ad-lib his way to that first down.

They expect victory.

The Spartans got an early Christmas present with five Nebraska turnovers — two coming inside their own 10-yard line.

Teams with a plus-five turnover advantage rarely lose. But the Spartans were nonetheless only a touchdown ahead when Dantonio went to his magician’s hat in the fourth quarter.

If Sadler didn’t push hard for those 3 yards, who knows how that changes the direction of this game?

The fake field goal joins the “Little Giants” fake field goal that beat Notre Dame three years ago and the Hail Mary touchdown that beat Wisconsin on the last play two years ago. It was named after the “Peanuts” bit in which Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown, and each time she pulls it away at the last second as Charlie falls flat on his back.

There were two versions of the play. It was “Charlie Brown” if the play went right, “Lucy” if it went left.

I told Sadler that the play must have been “Snoopy” if it went up the middle.

“I think Snoopy would’ve made the fake look a little better than I did,” Sadler said. “You don’t want your punter trying to juke people like that.”

It wasn’t the prettiest. But it worked. When you keep winning, that’s all that matters.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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