Saturday, October 24, 2015

Knee-jerk post game reactions (Michigan State 52, Indiana 26)

I'm relaxing on the couch, drinking a glass of wine, sort of watching USC/Utah (having changed channels after it became clear--or at least highly likely--Rutgers will not put up much fight against Ohio State).

My wife and I went to the MSU/Indiana game today. It was my 50th all-time MSU football game (I'm dorky enough to keep track of such statistics). It's probably more games than many, but completely dwarfed by anyone who has had season tickets for several years.

We sat in Section 4, Row 43, Seats 24 and 25; directly behind the small but boisterous Indiana section. The Hoosier faithful made noise throughout the game, but made a mad dash to the exits when the Spartans went up 45-26 late in the 4th quarter.

We saw and experienced about every kind of weather the Great Lakes State has in its arsenal, with the exception of snow. It was warm and partly sunny when the game started, then dark rain clouds moved into East Lansing and it poured for about 20 minutes or so. The storm brought a cold front and we shivered for the remainder of the game (though MSU's 4th quarter scoring barrage got me up, moving around, and slightly warmer).

Overall, it was a fun, albeit long, late afternoon and early evening at Spartan Stadium. Nate Sudfeld and IU's offense were as tricky as I expected, but the Spartan defense played much better in the second half and held the Hoosiers to only six second-half points. MSU was finally able to apply some pressure to Sudfeld and make him less effective.

I don't know what else can be said about Connor Cook. He just might be the very best Spartan quarterback I've ever seen. It's amazing to think how far he's come since replacing an ineffective Andrew Maxwell in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and then taking over the starting job for good after the 2013 Notre Dame game.

Cook carried the team on his shoulders today, though he was ably assisted by Aaron Burbridge, R.J. Shelton, Macgarrett Kings, L.J. Scott, and Gerald Holmes. Cook came only two yards short of tying Bill Burke's single-game passing record of 400 yards (against Michigan in 1999).
What's most important is that the Spartans survive this game, get the win, and enter a much-needed bye week at 8-0.

Meanwhile, I remain convinced that my "Gruff Sparty" hoodie and my old school "block 'S'" MSU are somehow lucky, and thankful that I made a last-minute decision to buy rain ponchos at Meijer.

Nervous about Indiana

In the immediate aftermath of the Michigan game, while elatedly and euphorically discussing the game with my father, I actually uttered, "everything after this is gravy." In the past, this is the way MSU fans approached the football season AFTER the Michigan game, and this off-the-cuff remark does not really reflect my feelings.

Indiana has me nervous. The Hoosiers' strengths on offense are exactly the Spartans' weaknesses. MSU may have a hard time dealing with Nate Sudfeld's ability to throw the ball. That's why the gloomy weather forcast (45 mph winds and rain) could work in MSU's favor. Then again, if the forecast also has the "thunder and lightning" part right, who knows when the game will even start or end?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Oh yeah, there's a game tomorrow

It's safe to say that all MSU football fans are just coming down on an almost week-long high and are just now realising that the Spartans have a game tomorrow.

The Indiana Hoosiers have perhaps the best aerial attack in the Big Ten, and I'm concerned with what a healthy Nate Sudfeld might be able to do against the Spartans' patched-together secondary. Sudfeld presents a challenge that Jake Rudock definitely did not.

Somewhat lost in the elation of the Michigan win is that the Spartans are still a team with plenty of faults and lots of improvements that need to be made.

Despite (arguably) the greatest special teams play in MSU history, the Spartans other special teams plays were dreadful in the Michigan game. In fact, in a season in which MSU's special teams play has been generally sub-par, it was terrible against Michigan--it's ironic that the greatest special teams play in Spartan history won the it in the final 10 seconds of the game.

The Spartans should beat Indiana tomorrow, though it may not be easy. It'll be interesting to see Indiana's mindset after last week's heartbreaking loss to Rutgers, in which the Hoosiers blew a 52-27 lead at home and went down 55-52. Will that loss demoralize them? I suspect Indiana still has some fight left in them, and it's up to the Spartans to not be hungover from the Michigan game and take care of Indiana. Mark Dantonio always has the Spartans ready after the Michigan game, and this year should be no exception.

Let's call this one: MSU 38, Indiana 28.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Finally comprehending the seemingly incomprehensible: the greatest football play in MSU history

I've had some time to fully digest and contemplate the incredible play that won the Michigan game for the Spartans. At the time I wrote my previous post, I don't know if the magnitude of what I (and we) witnessed fully registered. It took a few days for my brain to absorb the reality--and rarity--of the play.

To think that I wasn't even sure if I could watch the game. As usual, before the Michigan game I went through my standard anxiety, not sure if I could gut it out. About a half-hour before game time, having completed a 5K run in the neighborhood to relax and calm my nerves, I decided to not be a wimp and root the Spartans on and watch the game on television.

It was a great game, a hard-hitting tilt between two evenly matched teams. Calmed by several Bell's Two-Hearted Ales, I made it through the game without feeling excessive stress. Even when Connor Cook's desperation 4th down pass late in the fourth quarter fell incomplete, I'd already rationalized, as much as possible, the Spartans' close "loss" to the Wolverines: This short-handed, beat up team had played its heart out and came up just a bit short on the road. I braced myself for the inevitable Harbaugh deification that would occur in the upcoming week and prepared to focus my energies on non-football related pursuits. 

But the game wasn't quite over yet. I watched as the MSU defense stuffed Michigan on the Wolverines' final possession, hoping that the Spartans could get at least one desperation shot for a miracle. As we all know, the Spartans did hold Michigan to a three-and-out and the Wolverines prepared to punt with 10 seconds left. I stood in front of the television, no doubt preparing to immediately turn the television off when the final second ticked off the clock. 

The ball was snapped, and I'm sure my pulse quickened when the punter, Blake O'Neill, struggled handling the punt. After that, it's all a bit of a blur. O'Neill was pounced upon by Spartan defenders Matt Morrissey and Grayson Miller, the football flew directly from O'Neill's hand into the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson running in full stride. I'm not exactly sure, but I think I yelled, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" It was only 10 seconds, but it felt as if time stood still and for all I know, I was speaking in tongues. I prayed that Watts-Jackson would score. Once he hit about the 10-yard line, it was do or die. Either he got into the end zone, or else he was tackled and the game was over. At about the 7-yard line, Watts-Jackson cut to the inside and ran towards the goal line. A desperate Jake Butt, probably running faster than he ever had in his life, lunged for Watts-Jackson just as he was diving towards the goal line. Watts-Jackson made it by the slimmest of margins. My next impulse was to check for flags on the play. Surely there must be a flag on the play. When a few seconds passed and it was clear there were no penalties, it finally dawned on me...

"We won!! We won!! Oh my God, we won!!"

As long as I live, I may never see an ending like that ever again. I was breathless, I was elated, I stormed in a circle from my living room, down the hallway, into the kitchen, through the dining room, and back into the living room. I did what I almost always do after a big Michigan State win, I called my parents and celebrated. Then I listened to some of Spartan Sports Radio's post-game show, and remained in a happy glow for the rest of the weekend.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

For several reasons, the most satisfying win over Michigan in my lifetime

Yesterday was to be the day of the Jim Harbaugh coronation. The day in which the Michigan Wolverines would once again claim their lofty position as one of college football's elite. The stage was set, with ESPN College GameDay broadcasting from U of M's Diag, followed by a national broadcast of the game on ESPN.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation, Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans knocked Harbaugh's royal carriage off the road.

I did a count last night, and Michigan State has defeated Michigan in football 16 times in my lifetime (though I really shouldn't count the 1969 game since I don't remember it). So of the 15 I remember, yesterday's victory was far and away the most satisfying one.

Let's do a rundown of the various reasons this MSU win over Michigan was so sweet:

1. The Jim Harbaugh hype. All we've been hearing about since late December 2014 is "the wonder and glory of Jim Harbaugh." The media would have you believe he's Bo Schembechler, Vince Lombardi, and God Almighty in khakis. The hyperbole involving this guy had become truly nauseating, so knocking him off his pedestal, in the most gut-wrenching manner possible, is incredibly satisfying for Michigan State fans.

2. The Michigan shutout streak. Hey, I'll hand it to Michigan, three straight shutouts is a splendid accomplishment--but come on, let's get real. People talked about this Michigan defense like it was the 1985 Chicago Bears. Two of those shutouts were at home and all three against teams that are, at best, middling. Michigan was hanging its hat on last week's 38-0 win over Northwestern, but after the Iowa Hawkeyes trucked the Wildcats 40-10 in Evanston, it's now quite clear that this "signature win" was a mirage.

Though Michigan's run defense was stout against the Spartans (and so, too, was MSU's against the Wolverines), Connor Cook was able to exploit Michigan's secondary all day long with Spartan receivers making plenty of big catches (though credit must be given to Wolverines' splendid defensive back Jourdan Lewis, who battled Aaron Burbridge all day long). So Michigan's shutout streak came to a resounding end.

3. Turning the tables on the free publicity. As I wrote, this was all set up to be Michigan football's 2015 debutante ball and Harbaugh's coronation as the greatest football coach in the history of the world (or something like that). In the most incredible and improbable way--certainly one of the greatest-ever ends to a college football game--the Spartans pulled the rug out from under Michigan. The fumbled punt snap returned for a touchdown suddenly became THE play that everyone was talking about last night. Social media exploded. The replay was shown ad infinitum on the Big Ten Network, ESPN, and probably every other sports television network. It was posted on Twitter and Facebook by everyone. Michigan State couldn't possibly have scripted a better way to win that game and capture the most attention possible.

4. At least temporarily silencing the Michigan fan base. Oh my, had they become annoying. Where do I even begin? There was the whole Harbaugh mania, there was the incessant criticism of MSU's close wins in comparison to Michigan's blowouts, and just the fact that they'd crawled out of the woodwork like cockroaches.

Now, let me make this perfectly clear, there is no doubt that Michigan football is much improved over where it was under Rich Rodriguez and most of Brady Hoke's tenure, and Michigan will most likely remain a strong program as long as Harbaugh is there; but before we prepare to crown Harbaugh, keep in mind that Mark Dantonio and Michigan State are still here and aren't going away.