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Spartan Effort

Michigan State has adopted the tough personality of its coach and become the best story in the Big Ten

Michigan State had a special visitor after its 26--6 victory over a plucky Illinois squad last Saturday. Actor Gerard Butler, best known for playing King Leonidas in the film 300, which was about an underdog group of Spartan soldiers, led this group of Spartan football players in a cheer from the movie that Michigan State has adopted as its own: "Spartans, what is your profession?!"

Indeed, East Lansing has taken on a Hollywood feel this season. The Spartans, who opened the year as unranked underdogs, are now No. 8 and have gone 7--0 for the first time since 1966. And after No. 1 Ohio State lost at Wisconsin on Saturday night, the Spartans emerged as the team to beat in the Big Ten.

They've remained undefeated by taking on the no-frills personality of coach Mark Dantonio, who was away from the team for two weeks earlier this season after suffering a mild heart attack. In the age of the spread offense, Michigan State moves the ball the Dantonio way—straight up the gut. Behind running backs Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell, the Spartans average 206.1 yards on the ground, good for 26th in the country. "Even though Coach Dantonio wasn't around practice and at the games for a couple of weeks, his spirit was still there," junior quarterback Kirk Cousins said after the Illinois win. "In his absence we started to come together as a team." After the team rushed for 249 yards in beating Michigan two weeks ago, Baker strolled into the interview room with the entire Spartans offensive line and declared, "We just showed everyone that we can run the ball and that we'll be Big Ten champions."

The Spartans, who trailed the Illini 6--3 at halftime, also have displayed their coach's resilience—from faking a field goal to beat Notre Dame in overtime on Sept. 18 to stripping the ball from Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins on Saturday just when it looked as if Jenkins would give his team a chance to tie the score.

With no game scheduled against Ohio State, the biggest obstacle to an undefeated season for the Spartans will be Iowa, which hosts them on Oct. 30. But Cousins says the team is not looking past Saturday's meeting at Northwestern, the sort of trap game that recent incarnations of the Spartans have lost. "Our goal is to go 1--0 every week," Cousins says. "It sounds clichéd, but it's working for us."

If it keeps on working, Michigan State could be in for a Hollywood ending.

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GANG GREEN Marcus Hyde (11), Trenton Robinson and the Spartans are playing with the resiliency of Dantonio (below).