After a long, tense week of worrying about their stricken coach, the Michigan State Spartans got a welcome dose of good news as they wrapped up preparations for Northern Colorado.
Coach Mark Dantonio made a surprise visit to practice Friday, just five days after he had a mild heart attack and was taken to a hospital for surgery following his daring call in overtime to beat Notre Dame.
School spokesman John Lewandowski said Dantonio chatted with position groups during a pre-practice session and addressed the team briefly — the first time he's done that since he was hospitalized early Sunday.
He will watch Saturday's game against Northern Colorado at home, Lewandowski said.
"Everyone happy to see Coach D and he is returning home for rest," athletic director Mark Hollis tweeted.
The finish against Notre Dame is already one of the signature moments of the season: Trailing by three in overtime, Dantonio ordered a fake field goal that worked for a touchdown and gave the Spartans a 34-31 victory.
It might have been Dantonio's biggest win at Michigan State because of the opponent and the way it unfolded.
But the excitement largely vanished around East Lansing, replaced by concerns for the health of the 54-year-old Dantonio.
The coach had surgery to put a stent in a blocked blood vessel leading to his heart. It is unknown when he might return to coaching and the team is being led by offensive coordinator Don Treadwell.
Kirk Cousins was heading to church Sunday, less than 12 hours after his team's thrilling overtime win over Notre Dame, when he received a puzzling text message about a team meeting at noon.
"That never happens," the Michigan State quarterback said. "I thought, 'What can't wait until 4 o'clock?' We have to show up at 4 o'clock anyway. I knew it was something serious."
And so the 25th-ranked Spartans have spent the week trying to focus on football again with Northern Colorado coming to town.
"The nice thing is, along with the leadership and things that Coach Dantonio has already put in place, we have a lot of veterans that are on this football team," Treadwell said. "So certainly, our seniors, we're relying on them to really step forward."
Dantonio's absence comes as Michigan State is starting to earn national attention for its play.
The Spartans (3-0) have run the ball with ease this season, with both Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker averaging more than eight yards per carry.
Northern Colorado (2-1) is hoping to build on its own encouraging start to the season. The Bears, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, won only three games last season and are already on the verge of matching that total.
Quarterback Dylan Orms has thrown for six touchdowns and only one interception this season, and Northern Colorado is hoping for an upset similar to the one James Madison of the FCS pulled off against Virginia Tech earlier this month. This is a game Orms has been looking forward to for a while.
"I saw a challenge," he said. "I saw a chance to showcase ourselves and to play in a stadium I've seen a lot on TV."
For Michigan State, this isn't exactly a game to circle on the calendar, but the Spartans have had to work hard this week to avoid a letdown after the Notre Dame victory — especially with everything that's happened off the field.
Besides the indefinite loss of Dantonio, the team this week suspended tight end Dion Sims, who was among 10 men charged in the theft of Detroit Public Schools laptop computers. Sims hadn't played this season.
There is plenty at stake for Michigan State. Avoid an upset here, and the Spartans would finish September unbeaten and set up huge games against Wisconsin and Michigan to start next month.
And then there's the matter of their coach. Dantonio has been in the players' thoughts, and they expect to be motivated when the game starts.
"We know with Coach, he'll be back soon. We know he's doing all right," said Aaron Bates, who was the holder and threw the overtime touchdown pass against the Irish. "The best way to show our appreciation is just to do well on Saturday."
"We hope to make him proud, wherever he's watching the game," the quarterback said. "You face adversity in life, you face adversity in football, and we've just got to keep moving forward."