Friday, January 1, 2016

A sad way to start 2016

Where to start?

The best indication of how bad a game is for me is the relative lack of alcohol consumed by yours truly. I drank one Stella Artois in the first half of MSU's 38-0 drubbing, and then no more.

In fact, I barely paid attention to the fourth quarter. I'd say that approximately midway through the third quarter, I muted the sound on the TV to avoid the inevitable Alabama lovefest, and by the fourth quarter I was barely even watching the game.

It was only slightly less horrendous than the 2011 Capital One Bowl. At least in this game, the Spartans finished with a positive yardage total (26 carries for 29 yards).

Alabama deserves credit for what proved to be a brilliant game plan. When Derrick Henry didn't even touch the ball in the Tide's first possession, my initial reaction was that they were over thinking it and getting too cute. But quarterback Jake Coker executed the pass-first strategy to perfection and the Spartans never adjusted.

But defense actually seemed the least of their worries because the Spartans couldn't move the ball an inch on offense. And in what might have been the turning point in the game, MSU blew an opportunity to cut the Bama lead to 10-7 (or at worse, 10-3) when Connor Cook stared down his receiver and threw a momentum killing interception. The game went downhill from there.

So, in times like this, I need to remind myself of how far this program has come since the dark days of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith. This pain will pass, and may prove to be just another growth ring in this program's development.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last post of 2015 (Go Green, Beat Bama edition)

We're about two hours (and change) away from kickoff.

I've gone through my checklist of superstitious pre-game rituals. Yesterday, I walked by the building on North Washington in Lansing that I have arbitrarily bestowed magical properties. I have worked off some nervous energy by running for 5+ kilometers in my neighborhood (while listening to The Drive with Jack Ebling on my headphones). I am wearing my lucky "Gruff Sparty" hoodie (I've worn it during many Michigan State victories).

So I feel I've done my part.

Looking back on this season, and the rocky road it's been with the numerous injuries and the "skin of their teeth" wins--plus the heartbreaking loss to Nebraska that almost sent me over the edge--it's amazing that the Spartans are in this position.

As much as I'd love for MSU to beat Alabama and Nick Saban, all I really ask is that the Spartans give Alabama a game: make it a four quarter game, punch the Tide in the mouth several times, and make them EARN a win (if the Tide indeed win).

Above all, I want to appreciate this moment, win or lose. I know I've said it before, but I never thought I'd live to see Michigan State become a serious contender for a national football championship.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Michigan State/Alabama pre-game post, volume II (and some basketball)

Before I get to tomorrow's football game, let's start with hoops:

I don't know quite how or why, but I stuck with last night's Spartan basketball loss to Iowa all the way until the bitter end. It was easily the worst game our guys have played all season. The struggles last night are due to a variety of reasons. First and foremost, they miss Denzel Valentine...badly. It's not just that Valentine is the team leader in scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals--and arguably the best player in college basketball this season--it's that he is the undisputed leader of the team and makes everyone around him better. Valentine is, as Reggie Jackson once referred to himself, "the straw that stirs the drink." The Spartans were rudderless (or "strawless"?) without him last night.

The amount of lethargy that the Spartans exhibited last night makes me wonder if the death of Tom Izzo's father has effected them. Even Tom Izzo didn't seem to have the same amount of fire that he usually displays. It's natural and expected that Tom would be in mourning right now, and maybe a bit distracted. This could rub off on the players. I don't know this to be fact, but just speculation. In any case, the team should come out with considerably more focus against Minnesota and I'd be surprised if they lost that game.

It looks like Valentine may be able to return for the Big Ten home opener against Illinois, If the Spartans can beat Minnesota and make win two of the three games they play sans Valentine, that is about a good as it could get,

Now on to football:

I'm tired of the hype, I'm tired of listening to all the opinions and punditry, all of the fan trash talk, just bring on the game.

By this point, I'm sure everyone has read or heard the "keys to the game" ad infinitum. Essentially, for Michigan State, it boils down to whether the Spartans can contain--though not necessarily stop--Derrick Henry. (It's not realistic to expect the Spartans to stop the Heisman Trophy winner dead in this tracks for 60 minutes). It's true that a pro-style offense like Alabama's is the best case scenario for MSU's defense. They tend to be much more successful against those type of offenses than the spread, read-option, "throw it all over the field" attacks.

On the offensive side of the ball, will the Spartans be able to run effectively enough to allow Connor Cook and the passing game to be successful? If the Spartans can rush for over 100 yards in the game and at least keep Alabama honest, then that should make Cook's job at least a little easier.

So what would a national championship in football mean to Michigan State? It would be such an incredible achievement that I'm trying hard not to fixate on it. I don't want to be overly disappointed if it doesn't happen.

A national championship for Alabama or Oklahoma would be...well, just another national championship. Business as usual. For Michigan State, it would be a game changer, and the most significant...and improbable...athletic achievement in the school's history. MSU hasn't won a national championship since 1966 (depending on which of the myriad football polls one takes into account),

I'd best not obsess over the possibility of a national championship. There's plenty of time to hash over the ramifications for MSU if and when it happens.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Michigan State/Alabama pre-game post, volume I

With Christmas season upon us, and very little MSU sports action, I've been away from this blog quite a bit since the Big Ten Championship game against Iowa.

But now we're only four days away from the Spartans' College Football Playoff semi-final against the big bad Alabama Crimson Tide.

It's hard not to be reminded of the last time Michigan State played Alabama in football, the shellacking in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. That was one of the most uncompetitive bowl games I've ever seen, and at the time was a clear indication of how far Michigan State had to go to be among the elite programs in the nation.

On New Year's Eve, we will see how far the Spartans have come in the last five years. Obviously, I hope the Spartans beat Alabama, but I don't think it's necessary for MSU to win in order to prove that they belong among the big boys in college football. A hard-fought, close loss should be enough (though clearly a win over Bama would be considerably more satisfying).

I'm going on a limb and declaring that the Spartans are not only more athletically talented than the 2010 team, but they are tougher and more battle-tested. I'd be surprised if they don't battle Alabama all the way to the end, and frankly I wouldn't be shocked if the Spartans won this game. After the wild, crazy, seemingly improbable wins they have had since the 2011 season--and particularly since 2013--I'm finally done doubting this program.

There's been a lot written in these parts lately about Nick Saban: the way he left MSU and peoples' overall impression of the guy. My feelings towards Saban are somewhat ambivalent. Saban took over a Michigan State football program that had become flabby, undisciplined, and lazy (on and off the field) in the last few years of the George Perles regime. Saban cleaned it up, did what he could with scholarship limitations, and finally by his fifth year had enough talent to lead the program to a 9-2 record. Like most everyone in Spartan Nation, I was both angry and despondent when he bailed for LSU when the 1999 season ended. However, as has been pointed out by folks like Jack Ebling, the environment in the MSU administration and athletic department was much different in '99 than it is now. President M. Peter McPherson never did get football, (and neither did his predecessor John DiBiaggio, for that matter).

I won't pretend to know the ins-and-outs of Saban's decision to leave Michigan State. My sense is that it was a combination of factors: McPherson's refusal to give him a raise, Saban growing frustrated with playing second banana to Michigan--and by extension probably believing he'd taken MSU as far as it could go in football. (In fairness to Saban, Michigan under Lloyd Carr was a juggernaut and had won a share of the national championship in 1997, and I'm sure was extremely difficult to compete against in recruiting. When Dantonio took over in 2007, it coincided with the crumbling of the Michigan empire). Saban has been extremely complimentary of Dantonio, acknowledging that his protege has taken MSU further that he ever did.

So now mentor and protege face each other for the second time. We will soon see exactly how far the protege has elevated Michigan State football.