Over the past 8 weeks, Michigan State fans have been treated to an incredible, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride. Not since Lyndon Johnson sat in the Oval Office have Spartan supporters seen as much success or as many amazing efforts as MSU has put forth over the season’s first 2 months. Â Fans and even national pundits were cautiously unearthing phrases reserved for only the most special seasons-words like “Rose Bowl” and even “BCS championship”. But on Saturday, for the first time this season, the Spartans met a team that laid those dreams down to die, along with MSU’s hope for, at the very least, an outright Big Ten title.
If Michigan State’s previous victories had defied conventional wisdom, then it could also be said that their 37-6 defeat at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes fits that description too. In looking back at the Spartans’ preceding eight wins, MSU did all the right things-they ran the ball with conviction (ranking in the country’s top 30 in terms of yards per game), threw the ball well when necessary, and showed toughness in coming back from mediocre first-half performances to deliver strong second-half showings. Yet, the most astonishing fact about Saturday’s game stems from the stark reality that, in losing, they resembled a completely different team than the squad that took the field over the season’s first two months.
This particular Michigan State outfit looked shockingly different in turning the ball over three times, while at the same time being outrushed by 131 yards. As a matter of fact, over the previous eight contests, starting quarterback Kirk Cousins had only thrown one interception total, and to bring these statistics into clearer focus, MSU hadn’t been outgained by that amount on the ground this entire season.
But, the final statistics tell only a fraction of the story. Throughout the entire game, things clearly looked different. This was most apparent during the game’s opening minutes, as the defense yielded 80 yards over 12 plays directly after the opening kickoff. This energy-depleting surge resulted in the first Hawkeye points of the day. When the first quarter eventuallyÂ ended,Â the Spartans found themselves facing a 17-point deficit, the largest opening-period point differential they’ve seen so far.
After a second quarter that saw the Spartans allow 13 more points to bring the deficit to thirty,it was clear that Michigan State was out of sorts. Although Coach Dantonio undoubtedly urged his troops to keep playing, just as they did last week, Michigan State failed to mount a second-half comeback , scoring only six fourth-quarter points. In the end, delivering another thrilling victory proved impossible for these Spartans.
It’s clear now that when Michigan State commits penalties, mental mistakes, and turnovers in quick succession, their success is hindered dramatically. In prior games, Michigan State had been out-rushed, out-possessed, and out-scored in the first half, but not often all three, and not often after they committed uncharacteristic turnovers.
In order to win next week and in the following three contests, MSU must prove that giveaways, yellow flags, and lapses in focus won’t become the defining qualities of the second half of this season, as they’ve so often been in the past. To return to victory against Minnesota, they’ll need to return to the stand-out traits that led to an 8-0 start-running the football for large chunks of yardage, completing big throws down the middle (which led to 3 straight 200-plus yard games for Kirk Cousins at one point), and playing with discipline and toughness.
On the other hand, Coach Dantonio continually stresses both of those intangibles, and it’s a shame that today’s box score displays dismal marks in bothÂ categories for MSU. However, the coaching staff, team members and fans know full well what Michigan State is capable of when at their best. Next week, they’ll come out strong, and perform at the high level they’re capable of. After all, these Spartans may be down, but don’t count them out.