In August 2001--I remember the date because it was just a few days before my first son was born--I met up with a group of friends at the Peanut Barrel, one of the best watering holes in East Lansing. At some point during the evening, the subject of Michigan State football was brought up and discussed. The previous season, the Spartans finished 5-6 overall and tied for last place in the Big Ten at 2-6. The 2001 season would see them perform slightly better (7-5 overall, though only 3-5 in conference play, with a win over Fresno State in the fleabag Silicon Valley Classic bowl game). Anyway, the topic of discussion centered on whether MSU should give up the notion of being a viable player in football. The previous spring, Tom Izzo had led the basketball team to its fourth consecutive Big Ten title and third consecutive Final Four while the football program looked stuck in the mud and completely unable to capitalize on its stellar 1999 season (10-2, 6-2 in Big Ten play, win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl). Most of us sitting at that table in the bar agreed that football at MSU may as well be dead, and the school may as well concentrate on what it was good at: basketball.
Looking back now, with MSU in the midst of an amazing football renaissance, it's hard to believe that we ever felt this way. In truth, I don't know if my feelings towards Spartan football were quite that bleak. Even in my darkest hours, I felt that if Michigan State ever got its shit together, it could at least have a program on par with Iowa or Wisconsin: consistently finishing in the neighborhood of 8-4 while challenging for a conference title once every five years. It seemed like a reasonable and realistic expectation.
Never in my wildest imagination could I envision where Mark Dantonio has taken the MSU football program. Five double-digit win seasons in the last six years, three conference titles in six years (with an additional division title thrown in for good measure), four straight bowl wins, and now a spot in the four team College Football Playoff with a shot at a national championship. There are times when I truly feel I need to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming the whole thing up. In fact, this morning I half expected to wake up only to find that I'd imagined MSU's insanely dramatic win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game.
What a game it was last night. A hard-hitting, defensive, all-out slobber-knocker. In retrospect, I feel a little sheepish about predicting a high scoring 37-30 game. I completely overestimated the impact that artificial turf and a climate controlled indoor environment would have on the game. I thought this would enable both offenses to stretch the field and have big plays. Instead, both defenses brought it with intense fury.
To answer my question of a few days ago, "How good is Iowa?": The answer is, "Very, very good." The Hawkeyes were just as good as I expected and maybe even better. C.J. Beathard is a calm, unflappable quarterback with a great arm and a bright future. Cornerback Desmond King is deserving of his Defensive Back of the Year award, as he and Aaron Burbridge engaged in hand-to-hand combat all night long. I'm happy to hear the Hawkeyes remained in front of Ohio State in the college football playoff rankings and will be headed to the Rose Bowl. They earned it.
Mark Dantonio and Kirk Ferentz's teams have had some classic battles on the gridiron since Dantonio arrived in 2007. Ferentz won their first meeting in 2007, an overtime thriller. Dantonio countered with a 16-13 win in '08 when the Spartans stuffed Shon Greene on a fourth down run. Iowa bounced back in 2009 in what was one of the most painful losses I've ever endured, scoring the winning touchdown on the final play of the game. The teams have played four games since then, with MSU winning in 2011, 2013, and this year--and Iowa winning another gut-wrenching overtime thriller in 2012. The bottom line is that this has been one hell of a compelling series.
The 2015 Big Ten championship game will be a contest that people will talk about for years to come. It was filled with drama. There was what I refer to as the "Immaculate interception" by MSU's Demetrius Cox (ball jarred loose by Riley Bullough's hit on the receiver) in the MSU end zone. It was a huge play that prevented Iowa from scoring a touchdown (or at the very least, a field goal) and potentially taking a 13-3 lead. With the way the defenses were playing last night, a 10-point lead may have been almost insurmountable. When it looked like MSU had seized momentum with a 9-6 lead, C.J. Beathard threw a play-action touchdown bomb that put Iowa up 13-9. And then there was the Spartans' epic 9-plus minute touchdown drive in which MSU slowly squeezed the life out of the Hawkeyes like a boa constrictor killing its prey. When watching MSU sports, I often feel like my heart will leap out of my chest and land pulsing on the carpet in front of my Vizio flat-screen television, and that feeling was especially profound last night when witnessing the game-winning drive.
I am a happy, content Spartan fan today. I am basking in the glow of last night's wonderful win and am not concerned about the tilt with Alabama on December 31. After this whirlwind, roller coaster ride of a regular season, I feel like a three week breather is just what I need.