September 1, 2012

DotComp: Was This Ugly, Bad Football?

EAST LANSING - Is it okay to not be totally satisfied with Michigan State's 17-13 victory over Boise State?

Is it okay to not be totally impressed or completely entertained by what happened, Friday night at Spartan Stadium?

There was a shiny, big scoreboard. A dry ice & strobe light entrance. All the pretty people were here, expecting a gorgeous little game.

Is it okay to dwell negatively on three interceptions, some penalties, a fumble and a missed field goal?

I heard a couple of people describe Michigan State's 4-point victory over Boise State as being "anti-climactic."

This was a win over the previously 73-6 Boise State. The previously 53-3 Boise State.

Doesn't matter.

This is the new Michigan State, where a 15th-straight home victory is the fourth longest active streak in the country, where many of these same people who on Friday night were part of the largest Spartan Stadium home opener crowd since 1990 also experienced "Little Giants," "Rocket," and probably even U2.

Spartan Stadium has become a grand theater. Style points matter. We've grown to expect a glorious circus on nights like these. Friday's blunt-force bludgeoning of a Broncos team which rarely loses just wasn't spectacular enough, apparently.

But MSU's sleeper-hold method of tapping out Boise State in the final minutes was plenty pretty for the guy in charge.

"It's a nice feeling," Dantonio said of the final, clock-melting drive. "And we need to have more of those."


You've been conditioned to expect YouTube moments when you approach the turnstiles at Spartan Stadium on a night like this. Early-season night games against ranked opponents at Spartan Stadium have made memories. You recall Amp Campbell, coming back from a broken neck, and returning a fumble return for a TD in a dramatic victory over Oregon in 1999.

You recall Lorenzo White and Tony Mandarich pounding out a win over USC in Spartan Stadium's very first night game, as part of an event MSU promoted as "The Great American Football Celebration" on a college edition of ABC's Monday Night Football in 1987.

If you're too young to remember those games, then "Little Giants," and "Rocket" surely have shaped - or spoiled - your frame of reference.

But I contend that this night against Boise State WAS in a category similar to those landmark events.

Here's the difference:

When Michigan State beat USC, on Labor Day weekend of 1987, Michigan State was trying to become a star.

When Campbell and the Spartans rallied to beat Oregon in a well-played, high-scoring season opener night game in 1999, Michigan State was hoping to become a star.

When Aaron Bates connected with Charlie Gantt for an overtime conquest of Notre Dame on a fake field goal in overtime, the ballsiest call in recent college football memory - Michigan State felt like a star.

On Friday night, when Michigan State recoiled after five major errors in the passing game and selected blunt force trauma as the chosen route to victory, via Big Ten bludgeoning in the run game and a stinging defense, the Spartans were a star. They're here. All those things MSU was aspiring for in 1987, 1999, 2010, this program has achieved them, and is cocked and aiming for more. You just might not recognize it.

Michigan State's No. 13 preseason ranking is seen as too low by most Spartan fans - although it's MSU's highest August ranking since 1979.

Spartan fans have been fattened up by a record of 23-5 since the 2010 season opener. Michigan State is one of only seven teams in the country with 11 or more wins in the past two years.

When your team has enjoyed that kind of recent success, accomplishments such as this one against Boise State lose their shine. A program that was hoping to become a star in '87, '99 and 2010 is seeing its achievements drowned out by the light pollution of all its success.

That's a good problem. You're getting spoiled. As long as you're still filling the seats and making as much noise as you did on Friday night, Dantonio will be happy to keep spoiling you.

But here's what everybody is missing: Friday night's ending WAS unique, and maybe deserving of a legendary spot in Spartan lore - depending on what this team does to follow-up, over the next 12 weeks.

Do not under-value the deed of taking possession of the ball at your own 42-yard line, up by 4 points, with 6:32 remaining, and grinding out 13 snaps, exhausting Boise's supply of time outs, and expiring the final seconds at the 1-yard line.

After covering 57 game-clinching yards, rather than run up the score with an extra touchdown, MSU killed the clock at the goal line, flipped the ball to the ref, and shook hands. Who needs more style than that?

It didn't send Spartan Stadium into a mad celebration. MSU's victory formation was met with a golf clap. That won't make ESPN's Plays of the Week.

But in the long run, MSU's game-cementing, clock-melting ground campaign, flavored with a couple of short out routes for third down conversions, might be a more impressive way to close a show than winning a back-and-forth shootout with a trick play or a Hail Mary at the end. Impressive in that the tools needed to secure victory in this manner are ones that can be cleaned and resharpened for future use.

"Rocket" and "Little Giants" were one-hit wonders. What Michigan State did to end the game on Friday night might be the precursor to a season-long sonata.

Michigan State has a great defense. That became clear on Friday night, in case you missed it. If Michigan State is also closing in on forming a dominant run game, then heaven help the rest of the Big Ten.

If you are yearning for storybook spice, please savor the grim irony that Boise State is from the land of "First Team to 40 Wins." Forcing their offense to stand and watch from the sideline for the last 6-plus minutes dealt an apropos ending to their visit in Big Ten country - and possibly shook the foundation of their football beliefs.

This against a program whose defense shut down the ground games of Virginia Tech, Georgia and Oregon in the last three seasons. Many of the standouts from Boise State's previous defenses have moved on, but the methods of recruiting evaluation, player development and state-of-the-art scheming are still in place at Boise State. It's reasonable to assume that Boise State's defense will prove to be excellent again this year. But they couldn't stand in the way of Michigan State's program-building progress in the final minutes of Friday night.

"We got hit in the mouth tonight," said Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick.

When Boise State has beaten BCS powerhouses in the past, they have done it while surprising those teams with their physicality, their toughness at the line of scrimmage. Boise State's success hasn't been built solely on offensive finesse. Boise makes a big deal of meeting heavyweights in the center of the ring and proving that they have a stronger chin than the name-brand opponents.

Boise might not have as many proven performers as the past, but there is no doubt that they intended to establish a physical superiority over their ballyhooed opponents from Michigan State. Just like they did 12 months ago against Georgia. But this time, Boise State didn't come close in that category.

The game was competitive, the score was tight, but Boise State failed decisively in trying to establish themselves as the toughest, strongest team on the field, Friday night. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is an extremely positive reading for Michigan State's tea leaves of 2012.

MSU wasn't sharp with its ball skills in this game. But in the old school measuring sticks - defense, blocking, tackling, toughness - the Spartans look stacked.


The good news stemming from past comparable evenings at Spartan Stadium is that when MSU exited the '87 game against USC trying to become something special, the Spartans succeeded in that quest. Michigan State won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl.

When Michigan State exited the Oregon game in 1999 hoping to become something great, they succeeded that year too. Michigan State went 10-2 and won its first New Year's Day bowl game since 1987.

In 2010 when "Little Giants" left Michigan State feeling like something special, the Spartans made that legendary moment stand up, by securing an improbable, unexpected 10-win season and landing a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 1990.

By the time Kirk Cousins hit Keith Nichol last year with the "Rocket" Hail Mary pass to beat Wisconsin in another mind-numbing night game at Spartan Stadium, the Spartans truly were a national star in college football. That victory helped Michigan State win another Big Ten title, and set the course for MSU's first Top 10 finish and New Year's Day win since 1999.

And now comes this one against Boise State. This win doesn't have a name. It sent no one screaming into the aisles in celebration. Even the one trick play that Michigan State attempted blew up like a bad NASA experiment. We'll never know the code name of the double reverse pass play that ended with Tony Lippett getting sacked for a 10-yard loss and stalling a drive that had reached the Bronco 35.

But here's the thing about a championship team coming off of two straight 11-win seasons: You want to be perfect on Aug. 31. I don't think you want to beat Boise State 31-3. You would all feel better if that had been the case. And so would the players.

But you don't want the players to feel better. You want them eager to punch in on Sunday, watch the game film and get edgy about going back to work. Pat Narduzzi will be ready with a boot to the rear.

"We are going to make our most improvement from game one to game two," said Narduzzi's defensive coordinator. "It will be a good tape to review."

The defense allowed just 3 points to a program that averaged 41 a year ago. There's more improvement to come on that side of the ball, apparently.

"We didn't catch the ball well enough, often enough," said offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. "We will have to fix that in order to have a better football team."

The junket to Mount Pleasant will be a perfect little exercise for them next week. They will respect Central Michigan. Like a good Izzo team, the Spartans will compete against themselves, challenge themselves to improve, regardless of the opponent and the scoreboard. They will seek to hone their tools. It's good to leave the field a little dissatisfied in August.

Next week, Michigan State will be able to work on its passing game against slower defensive backs playing less-sophisticated coverages, and they'll do it in an uncomfortable little stadium full of angry people rooting like mad against them. That should be a perfect sharpener, in preparation for the Irish the following weekend.

Many will say this victory over Boise State wasn't pretty.

Those people don't understand the beauty of defense and a strong running game. Those elements are likely to check in for you every single week. The ball skill problems are far more correctable than a defense that gives up 450 yards in victory.

Michigan State held the Broncos to 37 rushing yards and 206 yards of total offense, both lows in the Chris Petersen era at Boise State. But that accomplishment will be shrugged off as a byproduct of Boise State's massive losses to graduation.

If we're still at the point that we need confirmation that Michigan State is "pretty good," here it is:

"[Michigan State] is probably the best front seven that I have played against in my 23rd start," said Boise State offensive lineman Joe Kellogg.

Bah. What does he know. Boise State only beats one national power per year, and only wins 95 percent of its games.

People who know football will identify the size of the engine Michigan State put on display, Friday night. The Spartans didn't have all the cylinders firing with precision, but there appears to be a load of torque under the hood. The real horsepower lies in the strength of MSU's defense, and the indication of a muscular run game. Opponents had better hope Andrew Maxwell and the receivers stay shaky and don't begin to approach what Cousins did with his guys in the past two years.

"Tough win," Dantonio said.

Tough win?

When have you ever heard a coach say that? "Tough" is invariably followed by the word "loss."

Not at Michigan State. Not now. Now, a 17-13 victory over a 24th-ranked opponent is a "tough" one.

Oh, that's delicious.

So if you don't have the usual, drained, giddy afterglow today that you have come to expect following a night game at Spartan Stadium, please embrace the methodical nature of blunt force football. It's a championship characteristic.

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