Spartans Are in a Lag Phase, but Always Come Back

It is hard to believe that just one year ago, Michigan State won the Big Ten Title. They punched their ticket to the second annual College Football Playoff and secured their names as one of the most successful football teams in school history.

Fast forward to 2016; the Spartans are coming off an ugly loss to Indiana, and have a 2-2 record (0-2 in the Big Ten). They have the same number of losses now as they accumulated in all of last year, and they still have yet to play Michigan, Ohio State or a bowl game.

Perhaps most unsettling of all is the way MSU lost to Indiana. They had many wasted opportunities. The Hoosiers missed a game-winning field goal, giving the Spartans another chance to save the season in double overtime.

But then, Spartan fans gazed toward the upper left corner of their TV screens, and saw the worst possible image: a yellow box containing the word “flag” in it.

The entire stadium held their breaths until it was confirmed; there was a leaping violation on Drake Martinez, giving Indiana an automatic first down and another shot at a game-winning field goal. This time, Hoosier kicker Griffin Oakes nailed it through the uprights.

What went wrong for Michigan State? The Spartans are generally successful in close games, (the 2014 Rose Bowl, the 2015 Cotton Bowl, the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game, etc.) but now the Spartans go to overtime against an unranked team they have not lost to since 2006, and fall on a penalty flag? Should MSU fans be worried?

[su_pullquote]From 2013-2015, the Spartans played ten games that were decided by one possession. They won eight of them.[/su_pullquote]

This question begs another: Why are the Spartans normally good in close games? From 2013-2015, the Spartans played ten games that were decided by one possession. They won eight of them. And many of these games were against high-profile teams in high-stakes games.

Most people credit MSU’s ability to win close games in big-time settings to Mark Dantonio. After all, he was leading the team for each of these three years of unprecedented Spartan success. But was anyone else was in East Lansing at this time? Yes, there was Connor Cook along with a ridiculously talented senior class.

Connor Cook, Shilique Calhoun, Jack Conklin and Aaron Burbridge are just a few casualties of the 2016 offseason. This brings up a very scary, but important question. What if MSU’s success from 2013-2015 was not from the magician Dantonio? What if the real “magician” was Connor Cook and the 2015 seniors?

Think of the number of times Cook led his troops downfield for a last-second game-winning drive. He did it against Iowa in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game, against Baylor in the 2015 Cotton Bowl and against Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game.

Cook and Co. had a great will to win. They were at their best in pressure situations. Whenever MSU found themselves in a jam, Spartan fans had the satisfaction of knowing that as long as they kept it close, they would win eight out of ten times.

But now that the Cook train has rolled off, one must wonder if Mark Dantonio can keep this success going. Can MSU still rise to the occasion in close games? So far, they have had two games that were decided by one possession—and they lost one of them. To make matters worse, it was against an unranked Indiana team, where the Spartans played an incredibly sloppy game, losing largely in part due to a personal foul. 

[su_pullquote align=”right”]It seems as if MSU’s burning passion to improvise and find ways to win has left with the 2015 senior class.[/su_pullquote]

This Indiana loss parallels the pre-Dantonio era. The Spartans always had their chances, but blew it at the last second. Of course, this all changed from 2013-2015, but the Indiana loss suggests that this was not because of Dantonio as much as it was because of the Cook administration. It seems as if MSU’s burning passion to improvise and find ways to win has left with the 2015 senior class.

So is this the end of Michigan State? Are they subject to wither away and die now that Cook has left? Not at all. This Indiana loss only means that MSU needs to find new playmakers—men with the same ability to thrive under pressure as Cook and Co.

Although 2013-2015 marks the height of Spartan football in recent history, it is not the only time MSU found success on the field. Remember Kirk Cousins? Remember how poor the Spartans were the year after he left? This whole situation has happened before.

All Mark Dantonio needs is a new group of players who have the same passion for winning as Cook and Cousins did. This year’s team may not be it, but it will come.

Do not credit the Spartans’ success in 2013-2015 solely to Dantonio. He is one fantastic coach, but he was only one piece in the puzzle. Instead, credit their success to the lethal combination of players who refuse to give up on the field and a coach who refuses to give up off the field.

Relax Spartan Nation, the time for redemption will come. Now is not the time, but it will happen.

And when it does, Sparty will once again hide in the weeds, discounted by the entire nation, poised to blindside the world with a tidal wave of green and white.