The complete overhaul of Michigan State football under head coach Mark Dantonio continues, in every conceivable form and fashion.
Clearly, the Spartans pull in better talent than they used to. Just as clearly, that talent is coached and deployed better than it ever was under a litany of predecessors, including a fellow by the name of Nick Saban. Not even he could break through the mysterious hex which kept the Spartans in the grip of misery at worst, and the land of “almost but not quite” at best.
Michigan State, year after year, had been “The Clemson of the Midwest.” (This, mind you, when Clemson was still the Clemson the Tigers used to be, failing when the lights were brightest, but that period of history has come and gone.) The Spartans would show enough talent and competence to suggest that they could do something with their season, but invariably, the world would spin sideways on a few utterly baffling Saturdays, sabotaging the grand plans State had for itself. As with UCLA and a few other programs across the country (Pitt, over the past 30 years, would also qualify as an example), Michigan State walked to a door marked “Opportunity” but would slip on a banana peel when it got close. The John L. Smith face slap (or any other John L. Smith moment of comedy gold) embodied the exasperation the Spartans and their fans felt each year, when something would go wrong.
On rare occasions in the roughly 20 seasons following the 1987 team’s march to (and victory in) the Rose Bowl over USC, Michigan State got things to go its way. Think of the clock game against Michigan in 2001, or the 2000 Citrus Bowl, in which Bobby Williams watched his team smack Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators in their home state. However, any successes which emerged were not sustained. The program was one big tease, and as the seasons piled up, it become far more difficult to believe that the leopard could change his spots in East Lansing.
Now, those times seem so very long ago. How much things have changed at a program whose success mirrors that of Tom Izzo’s basketball machine.
Go back over Michigan State’s last four bowl games. The Spartans didn’t merely win them; they won each of them in an improbable way (some more improbably than others). The 2012 Outback Bowl against Georgia; the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU; the 2014 Rose Bowl against Stanford; and the 2015 Cotton Bowl against Baylor all featured a few occurrences which rarely cut in favor of the Spartans over the previous 20 years. The Cotton Bowl win in particular was one of only two 20-points-or-more fourth-quarter comebacks in college football last season. The only other team to author such a feat was the team Michigan State defeated in Arlington, Texas: Baylor, against that group from TCU.
We wrote about that Cotton Bowl — not just in the present tense, but in setting the scene for the 2015 season. Had Baylor fended off Michigan State, so much of the offseason conversation regarding conference strength and the Big 12’s place in the college football world would have been markedly different. However, this is Michigan State’s time. When a close game hangs in the balance, the Spartans almost invariably win it. Are they fortunate? Sure… but what team isn’t when it wins the national title? (Seriously — there are no luck-free national champions in this sport, with very few exceptions.) What’s worth emphasizing is that whenever the Spartans get a break, they pounce on it and put it under their Christmas tree, making their football family happy.
We saw as much late Saturday night against Oregon.
It was a two-play sequence which could reverberate through the rest of the season, and eventually become a centerpiece of Selection Sunday, the day when college football announces its four-team playoff field for New Year’s Eve:
Vernon Adams, freshly thrust into the cauldron of FBS competition, had not been able to immerse himself in the Oregon program as long as he would have liked. Yet, he did pass that math test and did make himself eligible to join the Ducks. Given the very short turnaround time he faced in transitioning to the program, he did okay on Saturday — not great, but certainly not terrible. Adams was likely to face a moment-of-truth challenge at some point on Saturday, and it arrived when the Ducks’ defense and kick-return units — which both fared much better than any UO fan had a right to expect in this game — set up Mark Helfrich’s offense in plus territory with just over two minutes left in regulation. Trailing by only three, Oregon had to feel very optimistic about its chances of leaving the Midwest with a massive resume-building result.
After getting a first down, Oregon’s chances of stealing a road win largely against the run of play had improved. One thunderbolt would push the Ducks across the threshold and into the College Football Playoff’s early-season driver’s seat.
On a second and six from the MSU 33, Adams had that thunderbolt in his right arm. He watched Byron Marshall break wide open on the left side of the field. All Adams had to do was lob the throw so Marshall would have enough time and space in which to catch it for a touchdown. However, Adams — filled with adrenaline — gunned the throw at a low trajectory and overshot Marshall. Near-certain victory, right there for the Ducks to pluck, eluded Oregon’s grasp.
Yet, it was merely third and six — not too much of an obstacle for an offense as powerful as Oregon’s. The Ducks were also on the periphery of field goal range as well. Just five more yards (meaning no first down) would have made a tying kick a very realistic prospect. Oregon was not in a huge hole… but it had just lost an opportunity against one of the most opportunistic teams in college football over the past half-decade.
Michigan State, as outlined above, promptly seized a moment when its opponent left the door ajar.
Chris Frey and Lawrence Thomas busted through Oregon’s offensive line, burying Adams not just for a sack, but a 10-yard sack which eliminated a field goal from the equation by forcing the Ducks into fourth-and-16. Much like a tennis player who misses an easy volley on game point and fills his opponent with fresh belief on the next two points to lose serve, Oregon — with the game on its racquet — inspired the opponent which needs just a slight sliver of leverage to win the most consequential games on its schedule, year after year. The Spartans easily stopped the subsequent fourth-down play, and they — not Oregon — took a huge step forward in the playoff sweepstakes for 2015.
This is the new Michigan State, the team which consistently punishes opponents’ mistakes. This is the team prepared well enough by Dantonio to live on the right side of the fine line between high-stakes victory and wrenching defeats.
For decades, Michigan State was one of a few typical “almost” programs in this sport. Now, the Spartans are the ones who leave their opponents muttering, “We almost had ’em,” after nearly every main-event game they play.