First, I would like to give another shoutout to the Spartan fans at the stadium on Saturday. Despite getting your hearts ripped out so many times this season, a sellout crowd sent out the senior class with a lot of support (except the students. Many of you still suck). Unfortunately, you got your hearts ripped out for one last time in 2012 with a 23-20 loss to Northwestern.
After raising ticket prices and donations, MSU is going to see a major drop-off in season ticket sales due to both quality of football and the 2013 schedule. Other than the Iowa monsoon, Spartan fans never gave up on this season, but MSU finished 2-5 at "The Woodshed," including 0-4 in Big Ten play by a total of 11 points.
Sometimes, sports are just weird. MSU became the second team in FBS history to play seven straight games decided by four points or less in one season. It makes no sense how Notre Dame gets Pitt to miss a chip-shot field goal, or Michigan gets a tipped hail mary and eventually beats Northwestern, how Ohio State hasn't really been that impressive this year, but has an outside shot at an AP national championship, while MSU has to deal with this every week.
There's just no way to explain things, and that might be the worst part. These aren't the JLS or Bobby Williams Spartans. These guys have fought to the end every time. The SOS turned heartbreaking losses into blowout ones, and gave up by the end of the year. The 2012 Spartans have never given up, they just haven't made the play or got a bad break late too many times. They haven't failed in all these close games — they have three wins by four points or less, after all — it has just been a strange, strange season.
Pass to set up the run: Very much so. Andrew Maxwell's 46 pass attempts were a career-high. The 22 completions doesn't look good, but there were quite a few drops in there, and Maxwell was able to stretch the field. Le'Veon Bell finished with 133 yards on 32 carries, but MSU did a good job keeping Northwestern off-balance (until the red zone)
Force Northwestern into passing downs: By my rough count, Northwestern had 23-ish passing downs. MSU's defense generally did a very good job on first down when Kain Colter was the quarterback. Things were a little more troublesome with Trevor Siemian.
Finish strong: Nope. After MSU scored a touchdown to tie the game early in the fourth, Northwestern drove down and kicked a field goal. MSU's two following drives obviously did not produce points.
Three keys for Northwestern:
Run the ball with both Colter and Mark: Not much. Colter had 28 yards on six carries, while Mark had seven yards on six carries and left with an injury.
Stop the run: Bell's numbers are above. His 4.2 yards per carry aren't great, and they got the stops in the red zone and at the goal line when they needed it most.
Against a questionable Northwestern defense, the offense was pretty great until it got to the red zone. Maxwell finished 22-for-46 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those picks wasn't really his fault, as he was hit on the throw. The other was a bad underthrow. It certainly didn't feel like Maxwell's performance was indicative of the numbers. He had a couple bad throws, but quite a few drops, and others that some hands got on.
It helped that MSU finally decided to attack the middle of the field, specially hitting Dion Sims in the seam time after time. It's been a while since we've seen that. The playcalling, in general, I thought was very good.
MSU reached the red zone six times and scored just three times, including two touchdowns. That's pretty much what cost them the game, and it was for a variety of reasons. Maxwell fumbles on the QB sneak early— a play I had been calling for. That's not on the coaches. MSU is stuffed on the goal line on another, when it seemed quite clear Bell scored a touchdown on third down. I might have gone with a play-action to a tight end, but Bell has picked up that one yard so many times before (even if the OL has been questionable at best). Then Dan Conroy misses another short field goal right before the half.
There are your three failed red zone opportunities. There's your ballgame. MSU put up 419 yards of offense — its highest output in Big Ten play.
As for other notable performances, Sims had five catches for 102 yards in what might have been his last game at Spartan Stadium. Keith Mumphrey had six catches for 79 yards. Aaron Burbridge had four catches for 47 yards, including a great touchdown grab, but he dropped a few, including a deep ball. We didn't see much of Tony Lippett (two catches, 17 yards, one touchdown). DeAnthony Arnett made an appearance with a 12-yard grab. Never seen a group make so many hard catches, yet have so many bad drops.
The offensive line was not very good. Maxwell was sacked three times and hurried four times. But that's about what you expect at this point with that group.
Jim already emphasized his desire for MSU to go for fourth down late in games more often. MSU did get the ball back because of some stupid decisions by Pat Fitzgerald, but I didn't like the decision to punt on 4th-and-8 from the 42-yard line with just under three minutes remaining. The passing game was fairly successful, and you weren't guaranteed to get back in that position. Still, that didn't lose the game. The red zone problems did.
Could have/should have easily put up more than 30 points. But as we've said a million times, there is no room for error with this offense, and it cost them.
It's so hard to understand how a defense can be so good, until the offense does something well. MSU drives down for its first touchdown of the game to tie it at 13 in the third, then Northwestern — which hadn't done much up to that point — drives down for a touchdown in 2:26. MSU had stopped the Wildcats on a third down play, but a personal foul kept the drive alive.
MSU scored another touchdown to tie the game with about nine minutes left, then Northwestern drives down in 1:26 and kicks a field goal, which ended up being the winner.
Does the opponent change the gameplan after an MSU score? Does MSU let up? It's so odd how a defense that is so stout gives up so many back-breaking drives at the worst possible time.
Northwestern averaged more than 400 yards entering the game and finished with 303. The defense only gave up 16 points, because of the pick-six.
Isaiah Lewis had nine tackles, Chris Norman had eight and a pass breakup in his final home game, and Max Bullough had eight tackles, a TFL and half a sack. Perhaps most surprising was Denzel Drone, who had two QB hurries and seemed to disrupt a lot of plays as the nose tackle on MSU's 3-down-linemen set on 3rd and longs. Only one guaranteed game left, but that's something to watch for next week.
Northwestern doesn't turn the ball over much, and the Spartan D couldn't get one of those. They did a great job against Northwestern's run-first offense, but the passing quarterback Siemian found success, and Pat Fitzgerald was smart to stick with him in the second half. Both quarterbacks completed 13 passes, but Colters were for 81 yards, while Siemian's were for 165.
You hold Northwestern to 100 yards below their average and 16 points, that should be enough to win the game. But like so many MSU games, the Spartans never had any momentum. Had numerous chances to take the lead and couldn't. When they tied the game, the defense gave the lead back. Just so confusing to see. No. Margin. For. Error.
Dan Conroy really has had an amazing career at MSU. The former walk-on made so many clutch kicks over his career, but like so many things about this team this year, his season has just been inexplicable. His senior day really summed up his season. 1-for-2 on field goals, with a miss from 37 yards that could have given MSU the lead at halftime. On the other side, he has tied the MSU record with 76 straight made extra points.
Mike Sadler had another solid game. Averaged 42.6 yards on five punts, including two inside the 20. Andre Sims Jr. fumbled a punt return, but MSU kept the ball.
Well, they've got one more chance.
After the 2009 season, I wrote a column while at The State News saying the season wasn't a failure, because they were just a few plays from a special season. A few days later, after Alamo Bowl Media Day, Kirk Cousins came up to me and said he enjoyed the column. Cousins felt like they really didn't take as much of a step back as everyone thought, and we all know what happened in 2010.
I've hesitated to define this season as a "failure," just like I did in 2009 because of all the last-second losses. But losing to Minnesota and missing out on a bowl would certainly be a failure. I feel like I say this every week, but you wonder how much is left in the tank. The fact MSU opened as a 9.5-point favorite over Minnesota speaks to the state of the Gophers right now.
I still contend 2013 will be a very good year, even if Bell, Sims and Gholston all leave early for the NFL. (I'm not going to make any guesses on that, other than saying Bell would be smart to leave). A ton of talent returns on both sides of the ball, the schedule sets up nicely, and when MSU doesn't get the breaks one year, they usually get them the next.
Seriously, the second FBS team in HISTORY to play seven straight games decided by four points or less. You can't blame it on any one thing, as the losses have come in different ways. Sometimes, the offense is good, sometimes, it's the defense. Saturday was probably MSU's best team performance in Big Ten play, yet it might . All the stats point toward an MSU win, until you see the red zone/turnovers. They did just about everything else right.
I don't know what Mark Dantonio can tell the team anymore. I don't know what to think anymore. If anything, I think we need to forever forget the attacks on arbitrary character flaws. MSU isn't playing all these close games because of a lack of heart, grit, moxie, the will to win or whatever fluff you want to throw on it. They've been bad at times, and unlucky at other times.
There certainly have been many problems with this team, but you can't point to any one reason to explain this stretch —the offense has even been pretty good in these last two games.
The football gods can be very, very cruel sometimes, and all you can do is suck it up and deal with it.