Saturday, November 25, 2017
Sunday, November 5, 2017
I was at the October 21 Homecoming victory against Indiana: a warm, gloriously sunny Saturday. I have never seen a Homecoming game as festive as this year. The stadium was so packed--and security so tight--that it took us until about midway through the first quarter to get to our upper deck seats. The game itself was painful until MSU woke up late in the fourth quarter to score two touchdowns and sneak out with a 17-9 win.
Last week, very little went right in a 39-31 overtime loss to a good Northwestern team in Evanston. But the Spartans more than made up by bouncing back to beat #7 Penn State 27-24.
There hasn't been anything overwhelming about MSU's Big Ten wins this season. They have won five games by a combined 25 points. Even if it isn't pretty, the team finds a way to win.
My son and I were at the Penn State game, but I regret to admit that after the stadium was evacuated, we didn't return to the see the conclusion. We had prior engagements that evening, so I watched the second half from the warmth of my living room. But here is a salute to the hardy people who stuck around to cheer the Spartans on. Well done!
There is a lot to like about this year's team. Just the fact that they have more than doubled last year's win total is reason enough to rejoice.
Brian Lewerke has thrown for 400 yards in two consecutive games. He established a new single-game passing yardage record against Northwestern and threw for another 400 yesterday against Penn State. Considering he still has two more seasons left at MSU, he could end up as the most prolific passer MSU has ever had.
The Spartans have a slew of excellent young receivers, but Felton Davis III has established himself--at least for now--as the number one guy. He was seemingly all over the field yesterday and made phenomenal catch after phenomenal catch.
So with Iowa blowing out Ohio State yesterday, the Spartans find themselves amazingly playing for the driver's seat in the Big Ten East race next week against the Buckeyes. For the fourth time in the the last five years, it is Michigan State--not Michigan--who goes up against Ohio State with a potential championship on the line.
I admit that after last season's 3-9 debacle, I wasn't sure if Mark Dantonio could get the program back to championship level. How wrong I was. He has to be a prime candidate for national coach of the year.
I fully expect the Spartans to be underdogs in Columbus next week, and I think that's the way they like it. Ohio State has proven themselves to be fallible, and though I don't expect them to look as bad as they were against Iowa, in no way do I think they are a guarantee to beat Michigan State. I have finally learned not to doubt Mark Dantonio.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
I am doing something I should do more often and posting on my phone right after the game.
Well, the good news: the Spartans won.
The bad news: they damned near blew it.
In a game in which it appeared that MSU was in control and cruising to a relatively dominant victory, the bottom almost fell out in the 4th quarter. With MSU up 23-6, I had actually gone to the kitchen to pour a glass of wine. I couldn't have been gone more than five minutes. I came back to the living room in time to see Minnesota score a touchdown and cut it to 23-13.
MSU answered the Gophers with a touchdown of their own and all looked well again. But Minnesota refused to die. They marched down field and scored yet another TD.
It looked as if MSU would respond with another touchdown, but one of the weaker holding calls I have seen negated a great LJ Scott run. The Spartans then missed a field goal and I had a bad feeling.
Minnesota, naturally, drove down field on some improbable plays (including their backup QB faking out one of our defensive players) and scored yet another TD to cut the score to 30-27 with about 1:13 left. They did this with no timeouts left.
Suddenly I had images of the Nick Saban years when his teams seemed especially adept at blowing leads and losing in improbable ways. (Look up "1997 Michigan State/Purdue" to see what I mean).
Thankfully, MSU recovered Minny's on-side kick and that was that. As stated before, the Gophers were out of timeouts.
The Spartans had escaped with what was suddenly an ugly win.
(Did I mention that I spent the last several minutes of the game loudly cursing my television? Some things never change).
The positives are as follows: the Spartans won and are now 5-1 (3-0 in conference); LJ Scott had a truly great game despite his one turnover. It was one of the best games he has had since the 2015 Big Ten title win over Iowa. Another positive: the defense played well for about 80 percent of the game.
The negatives: too many turnovers (though the weather WAS bad); too many youthful mistakes; and the defense was woeful down the stretch.
I contend, however, that this is a young team still finding its way.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
So I haven't written anything since before the Notre Dame game. That one didn't go as I thought, with turnovers doing the Spartans in. The following weekend I was in Seattle and followed the Iowa game on my phone while traipsing around the "Emerald City." We returned to our hotel room when the game was in the fourth quarter and I was amazed to discover that the game was actually on television in the Pacific Northwest. It was a sludgy ugly nail biter, but the Spartans hung on for a 17-10 win.
And then there was Michigan this past Saturday. I thought MSU could and should make it a close game, but I didn't necessarily think they'd win. Well, I have to learn to stop doubting Mark Dantonio and company in this game. Dantonio is now 8-3 against Michigan. Even in the games that MSU has lost, the Spartans have been in every one of them, including last year's game in which a struggling team pushed Michigan to the fourth quarter.
So MSU's win Saturday should have come as no surprise. This is what Dantonio does. He gets his teams prepared to compete against Michigan and they never doubt their ability to beat the Wolverines. In fact, I think they assume they will beat Michigan. And with pompous Michigan alumni like Desmond Howard offering bulletin board material every year, Michigan State players don't lack for incentive to beat the Wolverines.
As someone who has followed this rivalry since the mid-'70s, and experienced his share of Michigan losses, it's still hard for me to get used to this new reality, But believe me, I'm enjoying it.
So now expectations for the season are suddenly elevated. Is this a team that can seriously contend for a Big Ten title? Who knows? Maybe they can. It all depends on how the team handles its big win over Michigan and how the young players mature over the course of the season. The next test is tonight on the road against a beat-up but still dangerous Minnesota Gophers team. It could be a struggle, but I will pick the Spartans to win 23-16.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Instead, I want to look back on this rivalry, because after tonight's game it will most likely not be renewed for another eight years. For these two schools that have had a long and storied football series, this is an unfortunate state of affairs. However, it's the sad reality of modern college football. Conference realignments (with Notre Dame obligated to play several ACC teams each season) and emphasis on money and recruiting (games in California against the likes of Stanford and USC are more lucrative in these regards than MSU in East Lansing) have pretty much killed one of the game's oldest rivalries.
So I thought I'd take a trip down my own personal memory lane and revisit the Spartans' wins (and memorable losses).
Though the Spartans beat Notre Dame in 1975, I have no specific memory of that game. I'm sure it was on television and I'm sure my parents were probably watching it, but at best it's a blur.
The Spartans' 28-23 win in 1983 was the first memorable Notre Dame game for me. In George Perles' first season, and second game as coach, he took what were essentially Muddy Waters' ragtag recruits and quite improbably beat the #4 Irish in South Bend. As it turns out, Notre Dame was highly overrated at the time, and finished '83 with a pedestrian 7-5 record. Still, the 4-6-1 Spartans had no business beating Notre Dame in South Bend. It was George's first big win as coach, but placed some unrealistic expectations on that team and Perles.
The next MSU win came in 1986, my freshman year at MSU. I have previously written in this blog about my 18-year-old idiot self almost provoking a fight before the game with a guy in a Notre Dame t-shirt. I may be lucky that my college career didn't come to a crashing halt before it had even begun. Instead, I made it back to Shaw Hall and watched the game in an upper classman's room with a bunch of other people. It was my first moment of fun in college, watching Dean Altobelli, Todd Krumm and company eek out a 20-15 win at Spartan Stadium.
Then we had a long drought. There was the nightmarish loss in 1987 (one of the few dark clouds in an otherwise bright sunny Rose Bowl season), heartbreaking and freakish losses in 1990 and 1994.
After a two-year break in the series, Nick Saban's 1997 team registered a dominating 23-7 win in South Bend. Thus began an unexpected five-game winning streak over the Bob Davie led Irish.
I can remember how shocked I was to come home from work late on Saturday night in 1998 and see that the Spartans had built a 42-3 lead over the Irish AT HALFTIME. That schizophrenic Spartan team had been blown out the previous week at Oregon and I had little hope that they'd be competitive with ND, much less win--but they pulled out a stunner. (Befitting that 1998 team's nature, they lost focus in the second half and were outscored 20-3, but had built such a huge lead that it didn't matter).
The Spartans continued the streak with a 23-13 win in 1999 (Gari Scott with sprinting down the sideline for a TD is etched in my brain), 27-21 in 2000 (freshman QB Jeff Smoker connecting on a last ditch 4th down TD reception to Herb Haygood in one of MSU football's most memorable moments), and a 17-10 win in 2001 that I barely remember.
The only Notre Dame game I have ever attended in person was in 2002. It looked for all the world like MSU would extend the streak to six when Charles Rogers made an acrobatic catch in the north end zone to give MSU a 17-14 lead late in the game. But on the ensuing kickoff the Irish ran the ball all the way back for a touchdown. From that point on, the 2002 season went in a tailspin.
In 2005, the Spartans won a dramatic overtime game with Jason Teague taking the ball in for the decisive score. This was followed by the controversial "flag planting" at the 50-yard-line of Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish claimed revenge in 2006 in the "monsoon game" when the Spartans blew a 16-point lead and saw the '06 season flush itself down the toilet.
There was the "Javon Ringer carries the team" game in 2008 when he rushed for over 200 yards in a 23-7 win. And who can forget Little Giants in 2010, one of the most exciting wins in Spartan history that was also one of Mark Dantonio's defining wins as MSU football coach.
I could go on about the next few games after Little Giants, but the power of my computer is dying, and Little Giants seems like an appropriate place to end. Who knows what excitement 2017 will bring?
It has been an eventful rivalry and one that will be missed.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
It's been a long time since I wrote in this blog. I'm still not sure if I'm entirely feeling it, but here's a shot.
We are already one week into the football season. The Spartans opened up last week with a workmanlike 35-10 win over Bowling Green. At least it was a much better performance than last year's season opener against Furman, a game MSU sleepwalked through (though they did win. But it was a harbinger of the disaster to come).
Today MSU takes on Western Michigan. The Broncos were 13-1 last year and just came off an impressive performance on the road against USC, in which WMU ran for over 250 yards and put up 31 points against a team that is allegedly top five in the nation. This game could be a litmus test for MSU. Are they improved from last year's disaster? Or are they where they left off last season. We shall see.