EAST LANSING, Mich. — With 23 seconds left, the field began to fill, fans pouring onto the turf in rivers of green. By game's end, it was entirely flooded, end zone to end zone. Legions of police were helpless as the south goal posts pitched under. In another minute, the north goal posts slowly submerged under waves of green.
The folks here don't get to try this very often, but when they do, it is with gusto. The last time Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl was 22 years ago, and since then there has been very little to celebrate. Saturday's postgame hysteria, following the capture of the Big Ten championship, was deserved, if somewhat frightening.
It was easy to see coming, too. Not from the beginning of the season, maybe, but by the first quarter. Michigan State jumped on that other conference have-not, Indiana, almost immediately.
Rose Bowl visions, classified as hallucinations any other season, were not at all dimmed by a Hoosier field goal on the game's first drive. Rather, the Spartans simply intensified their effort and, in a Lorenzo White-washing, buried Indiana, 27-3.
It was never close and never hard to understand, either. Michigan State's defense, the nation's best against the run, held up, holding Indiana to 33 yards rushing. And its offense, which used to be mostly tailback Lorenzo White, was streamlined for this unlikely occasion. Saturday it was entirely Lorenzo White.
The senior runner carried the ball 56 times, one short of the NCAA record, and gained a personal high of 292 yards. White is hardly an unsuspected hero; he's been touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate for three years running (and running) and has gained 4,421 yards so far. Still, his performance, both in quantity and quality, was startling.
"He played possessed today," Indiana Coach Bill Mallory said.
White, much of the reason the Spartans were able to contend for the Rose Bowl appearance, was running against a defense that was ninth in its conference against the run. And his line was doubly driven.
"We knocked them off the ball," tackle Tony Mandarich said. "There was a lot of emotion."
Still, his open-field running was magnificent. On one 20-yard gain in the first quarter, he cut sharply and left Indiana safety Brian Dewitz, who had been directly in front of him, lurching the wrong way. His quickness after a hole opened--and it opened wide, no question--was amazing.
"He was running hot," Michigan State Coach George Perles agreed.
The entire Spartan team, perhaps impressed by the rarity of this event, was running hot. This game never means anything. In 14 of the last 17 seasons, the Rose Bowl bid has hinged on the Ohio State-Michigan game. But this season had a different look with the Big Two folding early and unlikely contenders Michigan State and Indiana stepping forth.
Indiana, 0-11 during Mallory's first season in 1984, was the unlikeliest, although nobody put much stock in Perles five-year program when he came here five years ago. The Hoosiers may have been doomed not by the extra year in the Spartans' rebuilding but by appendicitis. They lost quarterback Dave Schnell last week and backup Dave Kramme, though experienced, did not allow Indiana's offense that extra dimension--passing and scrambling.
Still, it appeared that Michigan State brought somewhat more belief to this game. Defensive tackle Travis Davis, a stalwart on a unit that has allowed an average of 60 yards rushing (28 in Big Ten play), saw it in his teammates' and opponents' eyes.
"I looked in the guys' eyes and it was like a nightmare," he said. "We had this gleam when we looked at them. They looked back at us and said, 'Those guys are crazy.' "
They were crazy with anticipation. Since that last Rose Bowl, success has been sporadic and short-lived here. But Perles, who masterminded Super Bowl winning defenses for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has given them reason for hope. Although he admits the idea of a five-year program is foolish, his optimism was important.
"He just kept pumping it to us," Davis said. "He kept telling us we were that close. Now, we're not that close. We're there. He told me three years ago he'd put a ring on my finger. And he did."
Michigan State (7-2-1 overall, 6-0-1 in the conference) will come to the Rose Bowl one-dimensional, it is true. Junior quarterback Bobby McAllister can fool you statistically--he was 5 for 5, for 67 yards and one touchdown--but not otherwise. Two of those completions had more to do with the athletic abilities of his receivers than himself. One a 22-yard scoring pass to Andre Rison was on target, even though it was somewhat subsonic. A 19-yarder to Rison on the next scoring drive in the second quarter, was a magnificent catch, Rison turning back to catch it in the crook of his arm. And White's 11-yard catch to set up a field goal that culminated that drive, was one-handed.