The Painful Reality
By Jack Ebling /

It was never going to be easy. Not nearly as simple as Michigan State made it seem with last season’s nine-win mirage.

But does having a Top 25 football program and competing for Big Ten titles at least twice a decade have to be this hard? It shouldn’t be as difficult as the Spartans often make it – and did again Saturday.

A misleadingly close 38-30 loss at Wisconsin drove home that point. MSU was outplayed, outcoached and, most disturbingly, didn’t seem to care as much as the Badgers did in Camp Randall Stadium.

In a game that began at 11:02 a.m. in Madison, so early that Mark Dantonio wanted the football first, before UW was awake, it was the Spartans who hit the snooze alarm, then put fans to sleep with their play.

Today, a 1-3 football team has no one to blame but those who inhabit the Skandalaris Center, a facility that’s new enough and good enough to suggest better. Forget about once-a-year bounces on onside kicks and one-play-away defeats. MSU has gotten what it has deserved.

As we say goodbye and good riddance to September, the question is whether the past month’s mistakes will be – or can be – corrected in time to make football more than a massive block party. We’ll get that answer in the next seven days.

If the 2009 Spartans have a pulse, we’ll know next Saturday when a 4-0 Michigan team leaves Washtenaw County for the first time since last year’s annual loss to Ohio State. U-M has been practicing overtime to make it 42 years of never losing back-to-back games to “Little Brother.”

Forget about the current players’ frame of reference in the series. Some of their parents weren’t born the last time MSU ruled the state in the fall, as opposed to having a one-year lease on supremacy 10 different times.

Why does that matter? Why the history lesson? Because it explains an amazingly loyal fan base’s frustration and its default analysis of “Same Old Spartans” better than X’s and O’s ever could.

Since the 10-10 tie with Notre Dame on Nov. 19, 1966, MSU is a whopping one game over .500 with 10 head coaches. Since the beginning of the 1978 season, the Spartans have won exactly as many as they’ve lost with eight leaders. And those numbers get worse when we switch decades.

Starting in 1980, a stretch of 30 falls and far fewer rises, seven coaches have gone 168-172-5 (.494). They’re 112-132-4 (.481) in league play and 5-10 (.333) in bowl games, the dictionary definition of sub-mediocrity.

So when people talk about MSU becoming the equal of U-M or Ohio State, that isn’t the next step. It’s a leap of Olympic gold-medal dimensions. The Spartans have been below .500 17 times in the past 40 seasons, 18 if you count this year. The Wolverines have been there just once.

A better short-term goal is to look at Iowa and Wisconsin, programs with similar resources but much more national respect and recent success. It isn’t as sexy or as satisfying as running with the big boys. It also isn’t as easy as you’d think.

To soar with the Hawkeyes, you have to do more than beat Penn State seven times in your last eight meetings. You have to appreciate a miraculous 20-year turnaround under Hayden Fry and a re-renaissance with Kirk Ferentz.

If you don’t think Ferentz is anything special, he rebuilt from scratch and won one game to MSU’s 10 in the 1999 season. Since then, he has had back-to-back-to-back campaigns with double-digit victories, including a year with 11. The Spartans have reached 10 wins just twice in their first 112 seasons and will have to win out to avoid being 2-for-113. They have never won 11 games.

Less than nine months ago, a nine-win Iowa team that had dropped four games by a total of 12 points became the Big Ten’s only bowl winner last winter. Today, with help from back-to-back blocked field goals against Northern Iowa and a big-play defense (yes, that’s legal) in Unhappy Valley, Iowa is 4-0, 1-0 in the Big Ten and unafraid of upcoming trips to Madison, East Lansing and Columbus.

To even scavenge with the Badgers, who play before larger home crowds, the Spartans need to get their game in gear. Since Barry Alvarez got it going in Year 4 in 1993, he and hand-picked successor Bret Bielema have won nine bowl games, including a 3-0 mark in Pasadena.

But then, the only teams in the conference that haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since MSU’s last one-fourth sliver of the league title 19 years ago are the Spartans, Indiana and Minnesota.

Those stats aren’t meant to make fans drink more, take steps off the ledge or, worst of all, stop caring. In fact, if they want to avoid a miserable 12 months, MSU followers should report for duty next Saturday with at least triple the intensity and passion that their team just showed.

They’re only meant to show that the Spartans are entered in a 500-miler, not a drag race, on the road to success. They’ll have some missteps, especially after stealing two wins against Iowa and Wisconsin last year. In the latter game, MSU won despite rushing for just 25 yards and letting two Badgers run for at least 106.

The problem Saturday was that the Spartans looked more like a team that could go 3-9 than one that had just won nine games. MSU had the ball nearly 15 fewer minutes than the Badgers, who converted 11 times on third down, often with tight end Garrett Graham, who should’ve been penalized for apparent invisibility.

Forget the Spartans’ 486-436 advantage in total offense, padded by a meaningless 91-yard pass from Keith Nichol to Keshawn Martin with 15 seconds left. MSU never led on the scoreboard. And its defense had to be led from the sideline to the field to have any idea of where it was going.

How disappointing has the defense been? As disappointing as U-M’s was last year is an eerily similar plunge from nine victories to three. Consider this: The Spartans have scored 30 or more points 147 times in school history. The Notre Dame and Wisconsin games were just the 13th and 14th times that level of offense resulted in losses.

Assign responsibility wherever you’d like. There’s plenty to go around. But nothing can change those outcomes. The trick for players and coaches is to learn from those errors in a very short time if they don’t want to hear “The Victors” in their sleep and get slapped with Bo Schembechler’s classic line, arrogant but true from a historical standpoint, that a U-M payback of MSU in the 1980s had “restored things to their proper perspective.”

The Spartans also need to get stability at quarterback, where each series from the second quarter on presents a great “Who’s the quarterback?” possibility for the Michigan Lottery. They need to rush for more than 90 yards and allow fewer than 193. They need to stop committing nine penalties. And they must stop turning the ball over four times unless they plan on taking it away from the Wolverines a lot more than once.

Can they do those things? They did in 1978, 1987 and 1990, when they finished September with one win, beat the Wolverines in Week 5 and captured at least a share of the conference crown.

But this year’s team has to answer that question. It has to play much closer to its potential in all phases of play – and at peak efficiency on defense – to avoid irrelevance the rest the way.

It won’t be easy against a team with a quarterback who could be enshined in the College Football Hall of Fame by Christmas, or so rumors have it. But beating Michigan hasn’t been simple since Duffy Daugherty’s heyday, even when the final is 35-21, as it was last year in after 21 unanswered points in A-squared.

Does this MSU group have as much heart as last year’s? Does it have the maturity, the leadership and the ability to beat a ranked opponent instead of itself? Those are this week’s unanswered questions.

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 27th, 2009 at 9:17 am and is filed under Jack Ebling. You can trackback from your own site.

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