Friday, December 4, 2015

How good is Iowa? and other thoughts leading to the Big Ten championship game

So how good is Iowa?

That is the question I've been wrestling with as we head towards tomorrow's Big Ten championship game.

The Hawkeyes are undefeated, and that in itself is deserving of respect. They may not do anything particularly spectacular, but they do everything well. They also have about the most balanced offense in college football, averaging about 200 yards passing per game and 203 yards rushing.

Much has been made about Iowa's "weak" schedule, but any team that wins all of its games is deserving of respect, no matter who its opponents have been. Iowa had no choice in its divisional designation, but all the talk is completely overrated concerning how "weak" the Big Ten West is anyway. If one is to take the East/West crossover games as a barometer of the two divisions' strength, they are both completely even. Both divisions finished tied at 7-7 in crossover games--and Iowa won both of its games against the East while Michigan State finished 1-1. Now, it is true that Iowa benefited from not having to play Michigan State, Ohio State, or Michigan. However, the same could be said for MSU, who didn't have to play Iowa, Northwestern, or Wisconsin.

The non-conference schedule is where Michigan State has Iowa beat. All of MSU's non-conference opponents finished the season above .500 and are all headed to bowl games. Two of Iowa's opponents, North Texas and Iowa State, combined for a 4-20 record. Iowa also played an FCS school in Illinois State (who finished 9-2 overall and 7-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Redbirds are headed to the FCS playoffs). The best non-conference foe for Iowa was Pittsburgh. The Panthers, bowl-bound, finished 8-4.

But what does any of this stuff really mean anyway? It'll be completely meaningless when the teams kick off tomorrow at approximately 8:17 PM at Lucas Oil Stadium.

I think you can all guess that I'm rooting like crazy for the Spartans to win the Big Ten Conference title tomorrow night. With any big game, I feel the need to prepare for any kind of outcome. I have a feeling that it won't matter what I do to prepare, though. I'll most likely be getting little sleep tomorrow night regardless of the outcome--however it must be said that sleeplessness in victory is much more enjoyable than sleeplessness in defeat.

A victory in tomorrow night's game would vault Michigan State into the college football stratosphere, a rarefied air that Mark Dantonio has been trying to reach since he arrived on campus in late 2006. It's a level of greatness that I never dreamed of seeing in my lifetime.

I need to learn from 2011, though. Even if Michigan State loses tomorrow, it's not the end of the program. It's not the end of the world. At this point, I need to keep in mind that it never makes sense to stew too much over a loss, because often times a big win is just around the corner,

The game tomorrow should be close, but unless Iowa is much better than I or most anyone else thinks (and they may be), I have a feeling MSU will find a way to win this. The college football playoff is a goal this team has been reaching for since last season. The team is healthier than it has been since the Oregon game, and has played its best football in the the three games since the Nebraska debacle. Go ahead and call me a homer, but I'm predicting the Spartans to beat the Hawkeyes in a close game. Michigan State 37, Iowa 30.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Spartans beat Louisville, and I was there!

I had the good fortune and immense pleasure of attending last night's tremendously exciting MSU basketball victory over Louisville. It was the most electric atmosphere I've seen at Breslin since the Spartans' 75-52 in over Michigan on February 13, 2013. The crowd was fully engaged. Part of that has to do with the terrific start this team has had, but another part I'm sure has to do with what a tremendous mood the football team has created. In fact, some of the loudest applause of the night occurred when Connor Cook was shown on camera (he was in attendance) and when highlights clips were played on the scoreboard of Jalen Watts-Jackson's game-winning fumble return against Michigan and Michael Geiger's field goal that beat Ohio State.

The Lousville Cardinals are much better than their #24 ranking. They have tremendous quickness and length. (By the way, is "length" the most overused and annoying basketball term? Let's just say Louisville's players are "frickin' tall"). Like the best Rick Pitino teams, they play a suffocating zone defense and an equally lethal press. If this team doesn't at least make the Sweet Sixteen this season, I'd be surprised. Look for them to cause some havoc in the ACC.

I've given up trying to think of more superlatives to describe the play of Denzel Valentine. The young man has been incredible this season, and made six crucial free throws in the final minutes of the game to seal the win. He makes everyone around him better, and he and Byrn Forbes make the best tandem we may have seen around here since Earvin Johnson and Gregory Kelser. Is that a stretch to say that? I have been know for hyperbole, but I have to say that Valentine and Forbes have an almost telepathic communication that I've not seen since those guys. (Well, come to think of it, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson seemed to be able to communicate telepathically, as well).

Who, prior to this game, would have ever guessed that Kenny Goins would play 18 minutes and have 13 rebounds? On a night when Matt Costello and Javon Bess struggled, Goins stepped up big to battle Louisville's big men.

Thoroughly excited after the game, I stayed up to watch some of the late Big Ten/ACC Challenge games. Duke was on its way to blowing out Indiana, so I changed the channel to Illinois and Notre Dame, but it was quite clear that Notre Dame was about to win. Finally, I settled on the exciting finish of the Iowa/Florida State game. I surprised myself at how much I wanted the Big Ten to win this challenge, and was quite loudly and vocally rooting for the Hawkeyes and succeeded in keeping certain members of my family awake.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Michigan State 55, Penn State 16

First of all, sorry for yesterday's somewhat disjointed pre-game post. I was in the midst of experiencing my usual jitters and was sort of babbling.

Takeaways from the game: How could I have really doubted that Connor Cook would play on Senior Day? Not only did he play, but he was brilliant, and the offensive line may have had its best game of the season, or close to it. Cook was untouched and may have finished the contest with a completely clean uniform.

My jitters continued through the first half, and only because I knew what was at stake in this game, but looking at the game now, what was there to fear? Yes, Penn State was able to move the ball in the first half--using a particularly effective screen pass that seemingly went for at least nine yards every time Hackenberg threw it--but the Nittany Lions still only came away with 10 points by intermission.

Calmed by a Stella Artois, I did better in the second half. I had also muted the television as the ESPN broadcast crew were irritating. I try not to complain too much about play-by-play announcers, but I swear these guys were waving blue-and-white and scarlet-and-grey pom-poms in the booth.

By the time Jack Allen took time off from the offensive line to run for a 9-yard touchdown, the game officially became a laugher. With MSU up 55-16, the guys in the booth were reduced to talking about Christian Hackenberg's draft status. (I'm still trying to understand where the love affair for Hackenberg comes from. Strong arm? Maybe. "NFL body"? I suppose I can see that. But he has little mobility and I've quite simply never seen him do anything spectacular. Then again, if he had any sort of offensive line to protect him with regularity, perhaps his ability would be more obvious).

Well, real life calls and I need to cut this post short. More later...