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4th-Quarter Monsters: The Secret of Michigan State Football's Success

Ray GlierCollege Football National ColumnistDecember 28, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 5: Madre London #28 and Dylan Chmura #80 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrate after the Big Ten Championship against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Iowa 16-13. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michigan State's football players have tractor tires to flip and pound with a sledgehammer. Your football players have tractor tires to flip and pound. Michigan State players have weighted sleds to push and pull. Your players have weighted sleds to push and pull. Michigan State players wake up early in the winter for workouts. Your team's players wake up early in the winter for workouts.

So why does Michigan State kick your team's butt in the fourth quarter?

The Spartans were fourth-quarter monsters this season, which is why they are playing Alabama in a national semifinal on Dec. 31. The trend actually started with a 42-41 win over Baylor last January 1 in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan State is 6-1 in games this season decided by one score or less, including wins in the final ticks, or tick, over Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa.

There was a stray—a 39-38 loss to Nebraska—but in the games that mattered most (in Columbus against the Buckeyes, in Indianapolis against the Hawkeyes), the Spartans had a fourth-quarter store of resolve.

Your team didn't. Why?

Here's a glimpse.

Get yourself up one morning at 4:45 a.m., like Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin, and get yourself in workout clothes, and then go outside in minus-five-degree weather. See how that feels.

The workout starts at 5:30 a.m., but if you are there at 5:30, you're late. This happens three days a week immediately after national signing day (February).

Ken Mannie, the Michigan State strength and conditioning coach, is the guy waiting for you and handing you the big sledgehammer one of those mornings. He will tell you to beat on a tractor tire until he tells you to stop. Afterward, you are going to push a sled and then pull it. Following that, a harness is going to be strapped to you, and you pull tires.

"It's brutal," Conklin said.

Another morning he is going to have you run 300 yards, then run another 300 yards and another 300 yards. This taskmaster will have you run 20 minutes straight. Then there are short sprints and change-of-direction drills.

If Mannie thinks you cheated yourself, Conklin said, it's like you never ran those 20 minutes. Mannie will turn the clock back and make you do it again. While he is standing over you, the Michigan State taskmaster has this mental acuity that can peer into players. It is an ability to unlock even more resolve—the kind the Spartans won with this season.

Jack Conklin
Jack ConklinRey Del Rio/Getty Images

Those mornings where you woke up to cold that numbed your nose are part of the "4th Quarter Program." Head coach Mark Dantonio is there, along with the rest of the football staff.

"We have been in some bad situations in the fourth quarter this season," Conklin said. "We got out of it, a lot, because of that 4th Quarter Program in early February.

"I mean, you could see the benefits on the field. We're going down the field 22 plays, nine minutes against Iowa and kept running the ball, running the ball. I can definitely correlate it to the 4th Quarter Program."

Don't other schools push like this?

"I don't think many get up by 5 a.m.," Conklin said.

That stone-cold drive against the Hawkeyes was something to marvel over. The Spartans went 82 yards in 22 plays, taking nine minutes, four seconds to take a 16-13 lead. When Iowa finally got the ball back, there were 27 seconds left.

"At first I was a little tired, but the momentum kept carrying us," right guard Donavon Clark said of the drive versus Iowa. "We didn't even notice how much time was left on the clock as we went down the field. The momentum down kept building; the defense was getting tired, and we kept pushing.

"The 4th Quarter Program is meant to be hard physically, but especially mentally, and that's the whole point, learning how to push yourself mentally."

That is the point. Maybe that's what separates Michigan State from your team. Mentality over physicality.

The culture for 22-play drives starts with Dantonio, but just downhill from Dantonio is Mannie, the strength and conditioning coach at Michigan State for 21 years. He calls himself "a foot soldier" for Dantonio, but the players probably have other names for Mannie on those frigid mornings.

Ken Mannie with quarterback Connor Cook in 2014
Ken Mannie with quarterback Connor Cook in 2014Carlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

Mannie doesn't rev his players up with music like some programs. It's mostly quiet...until Mannie barks, or another assistant coach barks, Conklin said. Those February mornings are when the staff is adding extra gas for November/December drives.

"Bring four times as much mental toughness as you bring physical toughness," Mannie said. "That's something Coach D has hung his hat on this year. So many times physical toughness wears out after a while, but mental toughness is with you all the time.

"You have to have a fistfight mentality. We try and bring it all the time."

The mental "things" going on inside the Michigan State football program have nothing to do with skill.

"Coach D talks about the three main characteristics of our program, which are effort, toughness and knowledge," Mannie said. "You better bring all three things to bear if you expect to play. If you are missing any one of the three, you won't play. You might give effort, you might be tough, but if you don't know what you are doing, you are not going to play."

Here is something else the Spartans live by.

"You have to be an overachiever around here," Mannie said. "No matter what your God-given talents and abilities are—high, low, in the middle—you always have to be willing to better that. You have to one-up God-given talent. We teach it. We coach it."

Mannie is so earnest he could push a homeowner to mow the lawn walking backward. The players and their families are connected to him off the field, Clark said, so Mannie can be demanding of them on the field.

One day is reserved for speed. Flatline runs. One day is "Power Day" with sleds and resistance running with bands and those hammers. One day is agility/mobility, hip work, change of direction, body posturing—the football stuff without the football.

Every day, though, is the same. The players are challenged from the neck up.

"We talk about calloused hands, bloody knuckles and a fire in your heart," Mannie said. "That's what you have to have in our training program. That's what you have to bring. Once again, it has nothing to do with your ability level."

Here are some other Michigan State core principles, which can explain why the Spartans are a tough out in the fourth quarter:

Mike Dantonio
Mike DantonioThomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

"They approach everything they do with no finish line," Mannie said. "If you are running a race and you can't see a finish line, would you still be able to run as hard and fast as you can? I am asking you to sprint as hard and fast as you can [without the end in sight]."

"When we say play with a 'chip on the shoulder,' it does not mean being disrespected," Mannie said. "It means what motivates you, what challenges you, what makes you get up every day and do the good things you do. We want guys to take a chip on the shoulder through life, but our interpretation is that it is inspiration...that motivation...that challenge."

Michigan State vs. Alabama is going to be some scrum, especially if the game is close going into the fourth quarter. Alabama does not usually start fast, but it knows how finish with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (19 carries against Auburn in the fourth quarter, 46 in the game—a 29-13 win on Nov. 28).

You know about the Spartans and their rep as fourth-quarter maulers.

"Having the 4th Quarter Program simulates the start of something and the end of something," Clark said. "It simulates the game. They always preach about finishing, like finish every block; that's why the 4th Quarter Program is so challenging mentally and physically. It leads to something like that drive in the Big Ten Championship."

It could also lead to something bigger for the Spartans, like a national championship.

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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