It didn’t take long forÂ Michigan StateÂ to powerÂ its way onto the national scene this football season. For weeks, the Spartans stoodÂ solidly in the top 10, wonÂ ballgames convincingly,Â and made headlines for their meteoric rise to the top. Â But, in the course of one afternoon, the success story that MSUÂ crafted so carefullyÂ this year was laid to waste, in a wave of crimson. In the most important contest of the season,Â MSU turned in arguablyÂ the worst bowl gameÂ appearance in school history, falling to defending national champion Alabama 49-7.
Right from the start, the Spartans looked nothing like the squad that ripped off seven straight wins to open the season. In the game’s opening quarter, the normally stout Spartan defense was gashed on aÂ 79-yard scoring drive, and promptly gave the ball rightÂ back to Alabama onÂ a Kirk Cousins interception-that mistake would turn out to be critical, as Mark Ingram punched in a touchdown just minutes later. Even after escaping that sequence down only two scores, the Spartans were still unable to muster any sort of comeback.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
For a team whose defining attribute has been the ability to play through any situation, this wasÂ one challenge Michigan State couldn’t rise above. The talented and speedy Crimson Tide made sure of that, keeping MSU off the scoreboard until the game’s final six minutes. What’s more, Nick Saban’s team stopped his formerÂ team by doing exactly what the Spartans have done all season: pounding the rock and playing smashmouth defense. The Tide put six scores on the board running the football, rushing for 275 yards asÂ a team and popping off an average of over six yards a carry in the process. Oftentimes, Greg Jones, Marcus Hyde, and the rest of the Spartans’ defensive playmakers were leveled or sealed off by excellent blocking as ‘Bama ripped off long gain after long gain.
On the other side of the football, MSU’s performance was just as abysmal.Â Not once this season had the Spartans been limited to negative rushing yardage, but through heavy pressure and relentless pursuit, Alabama did just that.Â Throughout the game, they sent multiple players on blitzes, resulting in four sacks and injuries to Kirk Cousins and back-up Andrew Maxwell. State’s normally powerful running game was also a victim of the Crimson Tide’s speed, as Edwin Baker and the rest of the Spartan backs had no room to run. In addition, starter Cousins and two other Spartan QB’s combined to throw for a mere 219 yards-that, along with their inability to establish a ground game, sealed MSU’s fate drive after drive.
Besides the statistical disparities between these two squads, the Spartans showed they still have a long way to go to reach the level of aÂ team like Alabama. Saban’s team not only looked like the defending national champs, they played like it as well. Quarterback Greg McElroy threw just four incompletions, and his favorite target, Julio Jones, did a bit of everything, snagging three passes and running for a 35-yard score on the ground. On the other hand, MSU’s offensive and defensive stalwarts were non-existent. Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell combined to run for a grand total of 27 yards, senior receiver Mark Dell caught just two passes, and the rock-solid linebacker duo of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon was attacked play after play by Crimson Tide running backs and linemen alike.
Perhaps the defining play of the game came in the second quarter.Â With the football at the MSU 35-yard line and State in desperate need of a stop, the Crimson Tide drew up a reverse to Julio Jones. Turning the corner, Jones picked up an unlikely blocker: quarterback Greg McElroy. With the star signal-caller out in front, Jones raced up the sideline and into the endzone, but not before McElroy delivered a bruising hitÂ to safety Trenton Robinson. Â An in-your-face shot to the jaw, and the decisive nail in the Spartans’ coffin.Â
In just that one play, a snapshot of the entire game was on display: the speed of the Crimson Tide in pulling off a quick reverse, the perfect execution in scoring on the run, and the toughness of the Alabama squad in delivering bone-crushing hits to the Michigan State defense. For a program that counted this game as a measuring stick, a barometer of just how far they’ve come, MSU’s play in that situation and throughout the game was a clear indication that much still needs to be done.
Today, the Spartans were outcoached, outworked, and outplayed.Â With a huge opportunity in front of them, Coach Dantonio’s team failed to seize the glory that would accompany a victory, something that can’t be said about the rest of this season. Against a tough opponent, in an undeniably huge game, Michigan State played uncharacteristically flat. At the end of the day, speed, talent, toughness, and focus win football games. After today, the Spartans certainly know that, and come September, we’ll see how much they’ve really learned.