MINNEAPOLIS - Friday night, Max Bullough took a big new step as a leader. He called out his teammates on offense. He challenged them to produce. And on Saturday, they did. Now, the entire program is better for it.
During a team meeting at hotel, the night before MSU's game here at Minnesota, Bullough stepped in front of the entire team for his weekly address as a captain. But this time, he had no words of encouragement. This time, he looked across the room and challenged the offense to come through. Finally.
They say it's important that players refrain from pointing fingers of blame. Well, that might be true for the first 11 games of a season. But when it gets down to the 12th and final game, in a win-or-stay-home situation, someone might as well point some fingers, if it might help.
Bullough, the key player for the Big Ten's best defense, called out the Big Ten's worst offense. He challenged them to produce.
"We're not going to ignore the elephant in the room," Bullough said.
The offense was the elephant.
"I said we needed to get some points up on offense," Bullough said. "I just said, 'Guys, we have to put some points up. On defense, we're going to stop 'em. We need points.'"
The offensive players knew he was right.
"He wasn't angry," said wide receiver Bennie Fowler. "He was just like, 'I gotta say it. Defense is going to be able to do their thing tomorrow. We're going to stop them. Offense, it's on you to score the points.'
"Max challenged the offense to score points and move the ball."
True to an old Heathcote axiom about leadership, a leader isn't able to truly lead unless he is totally comfortable with his own game. By now, Bullough is more than comfortable and confident with his own game, and the capabilities of the MSU defense. And now, 12 games into his junior season, his senior season has begun, in a way.
"Speaking as a defensive guy and being the guy in the middle, I can speak from confidence in how we practice all week and what we're able to do, and what we were going to be able to do," Bullough said.
He anticipated that the defense would play shutdown football against the Gophers. He was right. MSU allowed only 96 yards of total offense. Minnesota rushed 19 times for a net of just 4 yards. Minnesota's only touchdown was scored via an interception return. The Gophers scored only 3 points against MSU's defense.
It marked the fourth time this year that the opponent didn't score a TD against the Spartans. MSU was just 2-1 in the other three games in which the defense didn't allow a touchdown. Bullough wanted to make sure another fine defensive effort wouldn't be squandered.
"He knew they were going to be able to be able to do their thing on defense," Fowler said. "So he challenged us. We had great incentive with this game."
Did anyone on offense say anything back to him?
"Nope," Fowler said. "He challenged us and we had to respond and we did."
The offense churned out 421 yards against Minnesota, including 278 on the ground, in helping the Spartans defeat the Gophers, 26-10.
"Those guys are big guys, they know exactly what's going on and they responded," Bullough said.
That's part of why Bullough spoke up. He knew they could handle it. He knew his subjects. Leader.
And like a true leader, Bullough deflected credit.
"Don't give credit to me," he said. "Those are the guys that are doing it. I just said something."
Just like Trenton Robinson did last year, when at halftime of MSU's victory over Michigan Robinson stormed into the offensive meeting room at demanded that the offense get going. They got going. MSU won, and continued to win, all the way to January. Robinson graduated happy.
Bullough may not have been in the room when Robinson made those demands of the offense, but Bullough has been in the room many times when Robinson challenged fellow defensive players. The precedent has been sent. It's okay to call people out, challenge them when they are not producing up their capabilities. It's not personal, it's practical. As a result, MSU's offensive players were no longer competing for themselves. They were now competing to live up to the demands of a worthy, respectable comrade.
Bullough was willing to become the most unpopular man in the room in order to say what the team needed to be said.
"I didn't know what the reaction was going to be when I said it," Bullough said.
Reaction was positive.
"They were thankful," Bullough said. "Those guys understand it. They took it like men and said, 'Thank you, we needed that challenge. It's something that needed to be said to us earlier in the year.'"
Bullough said most of it was spontaneous.
"I planned it a little bit, but a lot of times I get up there and get going and get all excited and it turns out a little more colorful than I planned," Bullough said. "I kind of got on a roll up there. Sometimes that happens. But it ended up turning out good and they responded."
The benefit of Bullough's demands may go farther than just one win. This win puts MSU in a bowl game, and gives the program a chance to develop with more than a dozen extra practices in December. It provides a chance to develop, a chance for the program to take a deep breath and feel good about extending its streak of bowls to six straight seasons.
"We talked about it all week: it was a program game," Bullough said. "We were in the same situation in 2007 and needed to win the last game to get to a bowl game."
That was before Bullough arrived at Michigan State. But he and the Spartans were now responsible for maintaining the streak that the 2007 team started. And they were playing with the knowledge that Dantonio's program has historically done well in November, and come through when losing wasn't an option. This was bigger than them. It was about the program, for the program and due to the strength of the program.
"I definitely don't want to be a player coming out of the Dantonio era as being one of the players who was part of a losing record," said senior offensive lineman Chris McDonald. "I just think we wanted it more. All of us had a chip on our shoulder and we were all in the right direction and we knew what we had to do, and we went after it."
"That's something that people are going to remember, no matter how tough the season was, if you can come back and win your last game and put yourself in position to go play in a favorable bowl game, that's good," Bullough said.
Not great. Nothing about this season is going to be great - aside from possibly the lessons of 2012, if they help produce a championship team in 2013.
"Getting this win and getting to a bowl game is crucial," McDonald said. "It's not just for the bowl game, it's for the next season. We'll be in position to see younger guys step up. It's a huge advantage going into the next season."
This coming from McDonald, a senior who won't even be part of next season. But he wanted this win for this season, for next season, for the program. A program win.
Someone asked Bullough if he felt the team and program grew as a result of this experience in Minneapolis.
"Yes," he said. "I thought it was a good moment for us."
And it should lead to more.
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