[Therapy costs a lot of money. Venting on your dormant blog is free. Commenting is still off. Dial me up on the Twitters.]
After 120 minutes of football played between Michigan State and Wisconsin this season, the cumulative score is MSU 76, Wisconsin 73. As a purportedly rational stats-oriented type, it’s tempting to console myself by chalking up last night’s conclusion to the inherent randomness of athletic competition. Two evenly-matched teams. One got the late breaks in the first game. One got them in the second game.
But that doesn’t really work here. Because, by the numbers, these two teams weren’t evenly matched last night. MSU was demonstrably superior in all major facets of the game. They outgained the Badgers by over 100 yards, performing more efficiently in both the running game and the passing game. The MSU defense sacked a very elusive quarterback three times, while Kirk Cousins was barely touched by the Wisconsin defense. By the time MSU first punted the ball, Wisconsin had already done so four times.
Ten-point underdogs that fall behind 21-7 don’t usually end up with fourth quarter leads. But this ten-point underdog executed a masterful offensive gameplan (Dan Roushar’s playcalling has improved by an estimated 341.5% since the Notre Dame game), found its bearings defensively, and went on a decidedly unflukey 22-0 run (221 yards gained, despite a turnover, and three three-and-outs forced).
And you know what? All that just makes all of this that much worse. Through 35 quarters of Big Ten football, MSU had emerged a clear head above the rest of the league–a full game better than everyone else over an eight-game schedule (having played as tough a slate as anyone) and eight points up on the team, already vanquished once, that both the experts and the numbers deemed the most talented and capable in the conference.
You could already taste the rose stem in your mouth. Three decades of mediocrity were on the verge of being, if not erased, overcome.
And that right there, and that alone, should be the source of all of our tears of unfathomable sadness. Not Michigan going to a BCS game–that’s just a function of a wacked out college football postseason “system.” (And, truth be told, I’m pretty sure most UM fans would have gladly traded places, raised the division championship trophy, and took the shot at the Rose Bowl. After all, it’s not “Those who stay will . . . back into a BCS at-large bid.) Not the inane “Sparty No!” exclamations strewn across Twitter and Facebook. (The last time MSU had lost a close [one-possession] game? 31 games ago, vs. Minnesota, 42-34. Implying that this group of Spartan football players is choke-prone is objectively laughable.) No, it’s all about the Rose Bowl.
The old saw is something like “You can only get as high in the good moments as you were low in the bad moments.” The problem is that the inverse of closing down an Indianapolis bar, trying to imbibe beer while gripping a rose between your teeth, is a kind of numbing distress that an athletic contest has no business inducing.
And, perhaps making things worse, it’s not even clear who we should be mad at. The coaching staff made all the right calls, or at least highly defensible calls. Dantanio’s overly conservative decisions to punt both played out according to his plans. The players made too many key plays to enumerate in the course of building that 8-point lead. (Kirk Cousins could not have been any better on his 29 non-INT passing attempts.) The refs had no choice but to make the running-into-the-kicker call, regardless of the classic Badger flop.
You can be mad at Nick Hill, I guess. He certainly didn’t follow through on Dantonio’s statement that ball security would be the top priority (or something along those lines). And Isaiah Lewis had as rough a fourth quarter as you’ll find. (The 4th-and-7 pass conversion is the one that will haunt me, as it occurred in the corner our seats were in. In Lewis’s defense, it was a very strange angle and trajectory to be defending a pass against. Not in his defense, ARRRRRRGH JUST GET ONE HAND ON THE BALL IT’S HANGING RIGHT THERE.)
Blaming those guys won’t help, of course. In the end, the team came up one play short–or one nonplay short, in the case of the attempted punt block that will live in infamy. (Underrated candidate: the ball that glanced off Keshawn Martin’s fingers in the endzone that would have put MSU up two scores with under nine minutes to go. Nobody’s fault, but that was the first crack at nailing the thing shut.) That should do nothing to reduce our pride in the team–quite the contrary, in fact–but that one unmade play translates into a yawning gulf between the binary outcomes available.
The standard routine at this point in a post-loss blog post is to try to find a silver lining. I find none. Yes, this team has built another piece of the foundation for future success for the Michigan State football program. But that was true before the team took the field last night and would have remained (and does remain) true regardless of how the game played out. The opportunity was there to turn future success into current success–to send Cousins, Cunningham, Martin, Nichol, Foreman, Robinson, et al. out as fully deserving participants in the Granddaddy of Them All. But, for reasons that are both starkly obvious and, at the same time, defiant to rational analysis, it was not to be grasped.