When I imagine the ultimate college football atmosphere, I recall one of my fondest memories at Spartan Stadium. It was a brisk November evening in 2004. I sat in the north end zone bleachers looking over at the student section screaming and cheering. They were rocking. The whole stadium was, actually. I don’t recall ever hearing a crowd that loud before, or since.
Clinging to a one-touchdown lead over the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers, the Spartans started the second half with a surprise onside kick, which they recovered. Then, they immediately drove down the field for a touchdown and the the stadium went ballistic. MSU dominated the second half and went on to win 49-14 in blowout fashion. Fans in the student section chanted “No more Rose Bowl!” while a heartbroken Wisconsin Badgers team realized their 9-0 record would not improve to 10-0.
What made that experience so incredible for me as a young fan was not that the win propelled Michigan State to a championship season or the national spotlight. In fact, the John L. Smith-coached Spartans finished the 2004 season 5-7 and did not qualify for a bowl game. Still, fresh off of back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State, respectively, the Spartans spoiled the No. 4 ranked Wisconsin Badgers’ season. With Damon Dowdell at quarterback and Jehuu Caulcrick at running back, MSU toppled over UW.
It was amazing.
To say 2016 has been a disappointment to MSU football fans would be a gross understatement. Between 2013 and 2015, the Spartans had three consecutive double-digit win seasons, two Big Ten Championships, its first Rose Bowl win in over two decades, a New Year’s Six bowl win and a College Football Playoff berth. Since lining up to play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve, the Spartans have lost more games than they had in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 regular seasons combined. The Michigan State faithful are used to seeing the green and white compete among the nation’s elite programs and are now beside themselves. But they shouldn’t be.
Fans are justified in being critical of this Michigan State team. Giving up 54 points to Northwestern at home is sad and embarrassing. After last Saturday’s loss to Maryland, Michigan State has now lost five consecutive games for the first time since 1991. The Spartans are 0-4 in the Big Ten. For an MSU football fan with even the most modest expectations, this season has been unacceptable. It’s in no way enticing to tune in and cheer on a team that won’t make a bowl game–especially when 2016 came with such ridiculously high expectations and extremely irrational wishful thinking. But it’s time Spartan fans learn to recalibrate expectations.
Here’s the blessing in disguise: we no longer have to pick apart the players and coaches after every win, walking on eggshells worrying about that inevitable first loss that will break our hearts. That first loss already happened. So did the fifth loss. We can just relax and watch the games now. We can be pleasantly surprised, or even ecstatic, to see this team win one game.
The important message for Spartan fans: there is still a chance to feel the same elation that I felt on November 13, 2004. In fact, we have multiple opportunities to feel that joy.
On Saturday, Michigan, who many people are saying is The Greatest Football Team to Ever Have Played in History, With the Greatest Coach of All Time, comes to Spartan Stadium. The Wolverines have their sights set on a National Championship, lead by a player some are calling A Surefire Heisman Trophy Candidate Multiposition Phenom. The Wolverines are undefeated. They are a Top 5 team in the country with a clear path to their first Big Ten Championship in over ten years. Vegas has them with the best odds to win the national title. Michigan State can play spoiler.
Will Michigan State beat Michigan? Probably not. Can Michigan State beat Michigan? Yes, there is an established precedent of the Spartans beating the Wolverines when they had no business doing so. It has happened recently. If Damon Dowdell can lead a mediocre team to a blowout victory over an undefeated Big Ten powerhouse, then Brian Lewerke can lead this underachieving and frustrated MSU team that has nothing to lose.
Even if the Spartans fail to upset the Wolverines’ season, they will have another chance to play spoiler at home against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are also likely to be a Top 10 team with Big Ten title aspirations when they arrive in East Lansing. Even though they were already upset by Penn State last Saturday, the Buckeyes still control their own destiny in the Big Ten. Michigan State, just like I saw it do to Wisconsin 12 years ago, can spoil that opportunity.
Playing for championships and extending win streaks is not the only thing that college football is about. When a team is bad, they still have to go out and play. Think about how Michigan fans felt in 2014. Or how Purdue fans feel, well, always.
For whatever reason, as young Spartan fan, I didn’t give up on the 2004 Spartans, which made me enjoy that miracle performance. Or maybe I had given up, and that’s the only way I was able to enjoy it. Either way, my advice is this: don’t “Wait until next year” until this year is over.
Michigan and Ohio State are coming to East Lansing. As a fan, the last thing I want to do is let my anger about this disappointing season stop me from enjoying upsetting one of those teams.
The Spartans could even win both of those games. How great would that be?
…They won’t, though. But that’s okay too.
By the way, since 2004 Badgers got their revenge. While MSU spoiled their Rose Bowl season in 2004, Wisconsin returned the favor in 2011. I was at that game too. And because of how it ended, there is now no possible way the result of a football game can break my heart again.