EAST LANSING - It shouldn't be hard for Michigan State to find a rallying cry for the coming practice week: Finish.
Finish every mental rep. Finish every film study session. Finish the practice week knowing they did everything they could to prepare for next Saturday's game at Minnesota.
Most importantly, finish drives on gameday, finish plays, finish quarterback sneaks, finish fourth-and-one running plays, finish catches on well-thrown deep balls, finish fine defensive stands without grabbing the quarterback's facemask, finish field goal attempts, finish blocks in pass protection, finish with a victory - all things the Spartans were unable to do this weekend against Northwestern.
Minnesota isn't great. The Gophers (6-5) aren't even good. But neither is Michigan State. Not if their body of work so far from this season is any indication. And the Spartans are running out of chances to prove that they are anything but a mediocre-to-poor team.
Playing at Minnesota with no Big Ten title on the line normally wouldn't be an occasion for a rallying cry. But if the Spartans don't rally, the off-season tears will taste far worse than sugar, this time.
I think Michigan State is a pretty good team. But I have declining evidence to support that belief. There certainly isn't any proof in the W-L columns.
Lose one or two close games, then three or four, now five and it's hard to deny that Michigan State is in fact what I've been resisting for a couple of months now: every bit as mediocre as their record. Just good enough to lose.
The Spartans play tough and close against good and bad teams. And then they consistently allow themselves to get beat by a bad bounce, a bad spot, a bad snap, a bad field goal attempt, a bad throw, a bad penalty, a bad read, a bad dropped pass, a dropped interception, bad officiating, a blown DB assignment, a blown assignment in edge containment, or a missed block. Almost everyone in the starting lineup has contributed to a loss with a big or small error at some point this season. Eliminate half of these and bad coaching suddenly becomes good coaching, again.
Separately, these are isolated incidents. Le'Veon Bell is not a poor pass protector. But he was on two expensive occasions, Saturday. And it contributed to the loss.
Aaron Burbridge has terrific hands. But that wasn't the case on a drive-killing drop on Saturday, and a fumble which ended another drive.
Shilique Calhoun is a good, improving pass rush threat. But he also made the mental error of allowing a hand to get up high and graze the facemask of the Northwestern quarterback on a crucial third-and-eight play in the second half. That play ended in an incompletion, and should have brought the MSU defense off the field. Instead, the personal foul extended Northwestern's drive, gave the Wildcats excellent field position. A few plays later, Northwestern scored its only offensive TD of the day. That's all the opponent needs this year, just a little edge, a little nudge of help from the Spartans - or perhaps the officials - to poison MSU's tipsy chances of victory.
Kurtis Drummond is a quality safety, who has made a string of big plays throughout the season. Big Ten coaches will cast votes for him to be on the All-Big Ten team this year. He'll get some mention. MSU missed him badly last weekend while Nebraska was staging its improbable, but somewhat predictable comeback.
This week, Drummond played well again. All except for that play when he botched his assignment and allowed a Northwestern tight end to get behind him for a 41-yard error when the game was tied at 20-20. That was the key play in the field goal drive which yielded the game-winning points. MSU's pass defense was good - smart, correct and tough - the rest of the day. But not on that play, on that drive. Just good enough to get beat.
Why Drummond? Why at that time?
Why Taybor Pepper, with his one bad snap of the year last week when MSU decided not to go for it on fourth-and-two, and instead punt, in hopes of pinning Nebraska deep in the final minutes. But the bad snap led to a bad punt and gave Nebraska good field position for its game-winning TD drive, benefitting from a bad pass interference call. By the way, that fourth-and-two should have been a fourth-and-one were it not for a bad spot by the officials. If it had been fourth-and-one, Dantonio says he would have gone for it.
Just one of those years.
But if the Spartans had gone for it last week against Nebraska on fourth-and-one, and decided to control their own destiny on offense, would MSU have gotten stuffed anyway? True, it's been "that type of year" for MSU in the fact that officiating has hastened their failures. But if MSU had gotten a good spot and gone for it on fourth down, would the Spartans still have managed to find a way to beat themselves anyway? Maybe false started on fourth-and-one? I'm thinking yes. And deep down, I suspect that the players are expecting to err, too.
If Darqueze Dennard hadn't been flagged for pass interference last week and Nebraska had been forced to kick a field goal and force overtime, would MSU have just waited until the extra session for one final self-inflicted wound to help Nebraska win?
If Dennard and finished an interception in the end zone in overtime against Iowa instead of dropping it, would it have made any difference? If MSU had the ball and a chance to win in the bottom frame of overtime against Iowa with a field goal, would MSU still have found a way to mess it up? Maybe a holding call to take them out of field goal range? Or a fumbled handoff?
Again, I fear the answer is yes. And it has very little to do with MSU's football playing ability, or their talent. There is a mental component to these failures.
When compiled together, these errors smell of a larger problem which is difficult to define at this point. There appears to be a lack of on-field focus, lack of discipline. Not all the time. A team can't enjoy the defensive statistical success MSU had had this year without loads of play-to-play discipline. But as a team, they just don't have enough to finish. A culture of winning is starting to erode. All the more reason to finish this week, win this last game, and begin again when the calendar flips to December.
Okay, I'll Go There
A very good team would be able to overcome the witch's brew of bad breaks MSU has endured this year. But a merely competitive team - such as the 2012 Spartans - isn't good enough to overcome them.
I've counted seven or eight ridiculously bad or inconsistent officiating calls that have gone against Michigan State this year. If you've watched MSU this year, you know the ones I'm talking about. I don't even have to list them.
Is it even worth mentioning that Bell's third-down run in the third quarter should have been ruled a touchdown? Instead, MSU turned it over on downs on the next snap.
Meanwhile, has MSU benefited from even one bad call this year? When are the football gods going to even this stuff out for the Spartans? And when is Jim Delaney going to send some of these officials back to the WWE?
MSU benefited from a holding call which negated an Iowa kickoff return on Oct. 13. And there was a holding call which nullified a Wisconsin touchdown on Oct. 27. Both were good, proper calls. And I'm here citing officials for actually SEEING a penalty and getting a call correct which happened to help Michigan State. These weren't lucky calls for MSU. They were good calls. Two of them. You got them right, refs. Bravo. So rare this year.
MSU has lost games by 1, 3, 2, 4 and 3 points. MSU has been bad at times. But so have the officials. If the officials had had a good year of officiating in MSU games, what would MSU's record be? It would be better, I'll tell you that. And the bowl bid would already be wrapped up.
Everyone knows that Michigan State was a better team last year. The Spartans' 10-2 regular season included victories of 10-7 over Ohio State, 37-31 over Wisconsin on a Hail Mary, and 31-24 over Minnesota.
Throw in one or two terrible calls at the wrong time against MSU in all three of those games and does MSU win those games? Maybe not. Heck, probably not. And instead of going 10-2 in the regular season, MSU might have gone 7-5 and never sniffed the Big Ten Championship Game or the Outback Bowl.
Same team. Good team. I don't recall the "good" 2011 team being scarred by bad officiating, except for maybe the time the punter ran his leg into Isaiah Lewis and pretended to fall in Indianapolis. All that that did was cost MSU an excellent chance to finish that game and go to Pasadena.
How about 2010, the year MSU went 11-1?
That team beat Notre Dame in overtime on the Little Giants play, and scored late to beat Wisconsin by 10. They stormed back to beat Northwestern by 8. Stammered through a 35-31 victory over Purdue. And managed to recover an onside kick and hold off Penn State.
Sprinkle some ill-timed devil dust in the proper places in those five games and an 11-1 team may finish 6-6. Same team. But add some bad calls and it can soil a season.
Maybe those teams, the Kirk Cousins teams, would have rallied and overcome the bad calls. They certainly were more in-tune with one another in the passing game, and with it came confidence. They probably would have been able to overcome bad officiating in some of those close games, but not all of them. And in four of MSU's six losses this year, the Spartans have paid a terrible officiating toll.
Bad calls are like bad bounces. They are part of the game. But this year's Michigan State team isn't good enough to overcome bad calls during a season in which they also have happened to have had inconsistency at place kicker, a high rate of injuries on the offensive line, disappointing pass rush at defensive end, delayed development at WR and QB, a key mid-season injury to their second-best offensive player (tight end Dion Sims), a sudden build-up of injuries at safety (which contributed to the loss to Nebraska).
In addition to not getting jobbed by officials, MSU's 2010 and 2011 teams also stayed pretty healthy.
This year's team might not deserve to feel good about anything, but at this time next week the Spartans' schedule will probably show that they played four teams that won 10 or more games.
There are only two unbeaten teams in the country. MSU played both of them. And the Spartans traded crushing body blows with both of them, for all 15 rounds.
All that this means is that MSU is a quality sparring partner. No partial credit. None expected.
But if you've watched MSU long enough, you remember times when the Spartans have been .500 or worse at this time of year and would have had no chance in hell of playing competitively with a pair of top five-caliber teams.
Can MSU fans take solace in the fact that MSU has played competitively with the nation's two unbeaten teams, and defeated 9-2 Boise State, and coulda, shoulda, woulda beat soon-to-be 10-2 Nebraska? Maybe a little. It doesn't help this year, but it should serve as basis of hope that MSU doesn't have far to climb in order to get back to being a 10-win team again in 2013. That hope didn't exist in the past around here.
It might not mean anything to you, but take this same, mediocre, 5-6 team, and replace Ohio State on the schedule with Illinois, and then move the bye week from Nov. 10 to Oct. 13 and I think this team is 8-3 right now. Same team. Change one opponent. Change the timing of other games and recuperation. That close.
They probably don't deserve it. But that's what I think.
Hell, make Ohio State play Notre Dame, and then give Buckeyes some well-timed bad officiating against Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin and the Buckeyes are probably 7-5.
It's About Damage Control
I'm not trying to make the Spartans sound better than they actually are. I'm just pointing out that although MSU has long since fallen out of the Big Ten race, the Spartans are still somewhat in the human race.
Despite the odd failings, there is still plenty of fabric from the previous years' successes in this team. The Spartans still have a good defense. MSU's running game has been strong and physical at times. [Bell's 133 yards against Northwestern is the most gained by one player against the Wildcats all season. The 238 yards rushing by MSU against Nebraska three weeks ago is the third-most allowed by Nebraska all season.] The receivers are inconsistent, but MSU's wide outs can put together a highlight reel from this season that would lead anyone to conclude that there is plenty of talent in place. Of course a lowlight reel of drops would quickly create understanding as to why the record is what it is.
The quarterback, Maxwell, shows an NFL gun at times. A highlight reel of his best throws would outshine that of any other QB in the Big Ten. But the missed reads at key junctures counterbalances the positives, for now. And for now, his development is the biggest question mark for 2013. All the more reason for extra December work.
The tight end, Dion Sims, turned in plays on Saturday that exceed anything MSU had at the position last year. But the possibility remains that he won't be back next year and will instead opt for early entry into the NFL Draft. Same with Bell.
Even more reason for those bowl practices of December, to drill their understudies, sharpen some redshirts at various positions.
Get a win, get to December, get loose, get healthy, shed the anxiety of the season and benefit from the extra pressure-free practices. Bring recruits in to watch the practices. Preach the gospel of progress. It's all part of the program, regardless of the ugliness of a potential 6-6 record and a non-January bowl game.
Get back to developmental drilling, get Maxwell back to work with these receivers (does anyone remember that he missed two-thirds of spring practice and the Green-White Game? Anyone think that might have stunted his development, and his rapport with receivers just a little bit in September and beyond?) and get these guys to start feeling good about themselves again. Hey, Michigan isn't any good. But they think they are. And they love being around each other, hooting and celebrating. Michigan State needs some of that feel-good delusion right now, to prolong this season that so many Spartans fans would probably rather escort to the archives. Thankfully, the players are more resilient than media and fans.
This has become a season about damage control. Plenty of damage has already been done. But MSU must not allow the damage to seep into the postseason.
This isn't about delusions of prestige associated with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. - which would be MSU's likely destination if the Spartans beat Minnesota.
This is about extending a school-record streak of consecutive bowl appearances to six. Most importantly, it would get the Spartans to a positive finish line of sorts for the 2012 regular season. Beat Minnesota, get to Dec. 1, rip the last four months out of the calendar, throw those pages away, and forget everything about the fall of 2012, other than the lessons. And begin preparing for a quality bowl opponent out of the Big 12, a chance to earn some respect for Michigan State and the Big Ten, and continue developing personnel headed toward the 2013 season.
This season has taken a terrible spill, but the program doesn't have to. The positive elements of the program need to arise and limit the wreckage. And it starts next week, by finishing.
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