Saturday, November 25, 2017

Catching up again...and adventures at the Maryland game

Catching up from where I left off...

The Ohio State game did not go as planned. Perhaps the less said about it, the better.
The following week, the Spartan men's basketball team lost yet again to Duke. The Blue Devils are MSU's kryptonite, and losing to them is agonizing. I'm sure it's far worse for Tom Izzo than it is for us fans.

Last Saturday, I scored two tickets to the home finale football game against Maryland. The weather that day was abysmal, so my wingman--my elder son--bailed on me about a half-hour before we were to leave for Spartan Stadium. I can't say I blame him.

Allow me to take a moment and complain about how college sports have become a slave to the whims of television. There is no way a mid or late November football game in the upper Midwest should kick off at 4:00 PM. And to make it even worse, the constant television timeouts are interminable.

So I trudged my way through the mucky, wet, already dark at 3:30 campus of MSU to the stadium. Nobody--and I mean NOBODY--was tailgating in this grey gloom.

Having zigzaged up the ramp to Section 105 in the east upper stands, I found my seat on the wet aluminum bleacher and decided it may be best to stand. Rain turned to sleet, but I survive the first quarter. By mid-way through the second quarter, it was clear that the knitted gloves I wore were useless in the damp conditions, as they were saturated with water and I may as well have wrapped wet cold towels around my hands. The gloves were removed and relegated to my coat pockets.
Then there was my miscalculated choice of footwear: running shoes. My feet were frozen and I could barely feel my toes. Never again. Note to self: wear winter boots in all future November football games in which the temperature is under 45 degrees.

At halftime, the Spartans held a 14-0 lead. I seriously considered abandoning the game, but then I remembered how my son and I had left for home during the weather delay of the Penn State game. I decided to walk around the upper deck concourse and attempt to warm up at least a bit.
The third quarter started and I was resolved to take it a quarter at a time. Maybe fewer than 30 people remained in the upper deck. At the risk of sounding insensitive to a real tragedy, it was as if we were on the Titanic going down with the ship, having declined opportunities to escape in lifeboats.
I found it was more tolerable to move around to keep my blood flowing, and the third quarter went quickly. When an usher encouraged we few upper deck stragglers to move down to the lower deck, I gladly did so.

The tiny crowd remaining in Spartan Stadium acted punch drunk, practically delirious from the wet, cold, icy, snowy conditions. Maryland mounted a bit of a rally in the fourth quarter, scoring a touchdown to cut the score to 17-7. The Terrapins later threatened to make it a one possession game when they lined up for a field goal. Suddenly, a ho-hum game became tense, which helped stave off the cold weather. The Terps missed the field goal and the Spartans survived with a 17-7 win.
And I also survived.

There were moments during the game when I wondered, "Am I endangering my life being out here?" I could barely wiggle my toes when the game ended and I had images of me having my frostbit toes amputated because I was too stubborn to leave a college football game.

Thankfully, the walk back to my car worked wonders, and I could feel all of my extremities after the 20 minute walk had concluded. Ones favorite team winning also helps get the blood flowing.
So today the Spartans will be finishing a better than expected regular season in New Jersey against Rutgers. I will watch it from the climate controlled warmth of my house.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What a football season it has been!

The Spartans have played three games since I last wrote in here, and they've won two of them.

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

Spartans escape 30-27

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

Elevated expectations

I literally have not been able to get to a computer to blog until now, but am taking a few minutes to type a few thoughts now.

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

Notre Dame Saturday, and a trip down memory lane

I will spare you any prediction of who will win tonight's Michigan State/Notre Dame game, because I really have no idea. And do you really want my opinion anyway? Probably not. (All I will say is that it should be a close game, maybe not decided until late in the fourth quarter),

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

First post in forever. Western Michigan game.

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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Catching up with Spartan sports

I haven't been too engaged with MSU sports this winter, certainly not as much as I have in the past. As I wrote in my previous post, events in our country and the world have rendered sports not as important or noteworthy as they once were.

Ironically, this season I have tied my personal record for Michigan State men's basketball games attended in person. I've been to eight games this season, and it would have been nine if my younger son's birthday hadn't been on MSU's senior day. (I decided to stay home and hang out with him). The Spartans have won every game I've attended this year, and my overall "in person" win-loss record is 46-3.

However, when I'm not at Breslin, I haven't been watching Spartan hoops that much. I think I've watched about one or two games on television. I just can't sit still long enough to watch a 2+ hour game on TV.

It's been a bumpy, rocky season. There have been key injuries and a young core of players who've had to learn how to play together, but it looks like maybe they are finally doing that. Miles Bridges has been excellent almost all year, but it's taken Nick Ward, Joshua Langford, and Cassius Winston most of the season to come into their own. After all the ups and downs they've been through, the MSU hoops team remarkably sits at 10-6 in the conference with an outside shot of tying for the regular season title. Who really saw that coming? Before we get too excited, though, the Spartans' final two regular season games are tough road contests against Illinois and Maryland. 10-8 is a real possibility.

The other news on the MSU sports landscape hasn't been as uplifting. The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal has given Michigan State unwanted publicity, and the football program has a dark cloud hanging over it with a sexual abuse investigation of its own. It seems that ever since getting demolished by Alabama on December 31, 2015, the football program has hit the skids both on and off the field.

Oh, and the hockey program is a complete train wreck.

So the only reasonable bright sides this winter have been men's and women's basketball. But even the women's team has had a scare with Coach Suzy Merchant's health problems.

That's where we stand right now. I'll revisit this blog when March Madness begins.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sports don't seem very important right now

I've been away from this blog for quite some time. The truth of the matter is I just am not in the mood.

I don't want to get political here, but current events in our nation have made sports not seem particularly important. At least not important enough to write about.

I am not necessarily putting this blog in mothballs, but I may not write in here nearly as much as before. My impression is I don't have many readers anyway, so it may not matter much to anyone.

But while I'm in here, I may as well acknowledge the MSU basketball game against Michigan tomorrow. It was a game about which I felt fairly comfortable until the Wolverines demolished Indiana by 30 points. I still think that the Spartans should find a way to beat Michigan at home, but it could be a death struggle. I will go out on a limb and predict a 73-67 MSU victory. But if Michigan won, I would not be shocked.

I don't know the next time I'll write in here, maybe I'll surprise myself and write immediately after the MSU/UM game, but I really don't know.