The fear of missing a bowl game for the first time since 2006 has dissipated. You didn't celebrate after the game, you breathed a sigh of relief. The top goals weren't reached, we know that. But Saturday's 26-10 win over Minnesota was still a very big one, just not for reasons we expected before the season. Mark Dantonio guaranteed it, and his players backed him up.
Behind a career day for Le'Veon Bell and an all-time great performance from the defense, MSU finally pulled away, breaking a streak of seven straight games decided by four points or less and earning the program's sixth straight bowl berth.
Side note: I thought those Minnesota unis looked great, and their total set of jersey/pants combos are really good.
First, looking back at my keys to the game.
Three keys for MSU:
Red zone offense: Technically three trips, but one was to run out the clock at the end of the game. As for the other two, one touchdown and one field goal, so it wasn't terrible, but the fact MSU only got to the red zone just two/three times with 421 yards of offense was frustrating, and resulted in a bunch of long field goal attempts from Dan Conroy.
Run the ball: Very much a success. A career-high 266 yards on 35 carries for an incredible 7.6 yards per carry for Bell. When the opponent knows what's coming, and you still pick up seven yards a pop, that's something. Credit to the offensive line for making the holes, too.
Do or die: With the pressure on, MSU put up a season-high in yards in Big Ten play and allowed the fewest in any Big Ten game since Ohio State/Michigan in 2007.
Three keys for Minnesota:
Stop Le'Veon Bell: Nope. See above.
Run the ball: Nope. Four yards on 19 carries, not sack-adjusted, for a 0.2 yards per carry. Sacks or not, they got nothing.
Senior Day mojo: They stuck around for much longer than they should have, but the Gophers just couldn't do anything on offense.
Breaking down MSU on all sides of the ball:
There was a point in the game, some time after MSU ran the failed flea flicker and a monster run by Bell where BTN commentator Glen Mason said that running Bell should be the only trick play MSU runs. It really was an incredible performance from both Bell and the offensive line. In recent weeks, Bell had been much better running out of the shotgun, but MSU went under center for most of Saturday's game, and it was obviously quite successful.
If that's the final regular season game for Bell in an MSU uniform, it was a helluva way to go out, and Spartan fans can thank him for a sixth straight bowl game.
As for the passing game, what can you do? For most of the season, Andrew Maxwell hadn't made all the good throws, but he was pretty good with his reads. Mark Dantonio said after the game that Maxwell was dealing with a bruised shoulder and couldn't even throw earlier in the week. That explains some things, but Saturday might have been his worst game as a Spartan (13-for-29, 142 yards, 1 deflected TD, 2 INTs). Throwing into triple coverage to a backup fullback makes as much sense as that actually being a route in the first place.
Bennie Fowler (7 catches, 101 yards, 1 TD) had a solid game, though that included a 41-yard touchdown on that fluky tipped reception. But hey, MSU was due a break.
Connor Cook would not have been the answer Saturday, nor at any other point in the season. That said, barring some incredible performance in the bowl game, there should be open competition for the job next year. However, I don't expect it to happen. The coaches are going to go with the quarterback who knows the playbook and manages the best, and that's Maxwell. You can complain about him, and some of your criticisms are fair, just don't expect it to change. However, I do expect a big year out of Maxwell and this passing game next season, for what it's worth.
The same goes for Dan Roushar. I've generally stayed away from this topic, because it seems pointless. Roushar is not getting fired/demoted. Complain all you want, I do think there are going to be changes to the offensive gameplan next season, if only because of the personnel. Dantonio has always been about continuity, so they're not going to bring in someone from the outside with a whole new style. It's about everyone being comfortable with the system. You can hate, but Dantonio can point to a program-record six straight bowls. Yeah, they fell short of expectations this season, but there's a reason those expectations got so high in the first place. Stability and continuity are the reasons Dantonio was hired. Don't forget how far this program has come.
And if you think Dantonio needs to be fired or is on the hot seat, please go to tRCMB.
The numbers tell it all: 96 total yards, seven first downs, four interceptions, 2.0 yards per play. Max Bullough challenged the offense before the game, saying the defense would do its job. They did. Aside from one of the stupidest penalties you'll ever see (Gholston), it was an all-time great performance when they needed it the most. It was the fourth game this season in which the defense didn't allow a touchdown. There were two more games in which they allowed one touchdown.
It's been said plenty, but this is a national championship-carrier defense. You can express your frustration with the offense, but that's how football works sometimes. Florida is No. 5 in total defense and No. 104 in total offense (13 spots below MSU), and they're going to the Sugar Bowl. Sometimes, you've just got to make plays, and both sides of the ball have been unable to do that at key times this season.
Bullough led MSU with just seven tackles, largely a result of Minnesota running just 49 plays. Johnny Adams had a terrific game with two interceptions. Darqueze Dennard also had a fantastic game and got an interception of his own. RJ Williamson got the final pick to seal the game. There were seven TFLs and two sacks as a team.
With Tyler Hoover applying for a sixth year of eligibility, MSU is set to return the entire starting defense outside of Anthony Rashad White and Adams. (I'm counting Taiwan Jones as a starter). Of course, William Gholston could go pro, but I wouldn't expect any other defensive players to have a realistic shot of leaving early. It's interesting that by far the best defense in the conference won't win any individual conference awards. It's a team effort, though plenty should earn All-Big Ten honors. Remember, all 11 starters earned at least honorable mention a year ago.
The early miss from Conroy was something we've seen all year, but he finished 4-for-5 with three makes from 40+, which is pretty good. He also broke the MSU record for most consecutive PATs made.
Mike Sadler averaged 43.3 yards on three punts with a long of 56 and one inside the 2-yard line. He has a shot at being named the conference's top punter.
A long punt return! Andre Sims Jr. had a 44-yard punt return that set up a field goal. He returned three more punts for a total of 22 yards.
Well, I wouldn't call the season a "failure," thought it certainly was a disappointment. Going to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (likely) isn't what everyone was hoping for, but if they end up in Tempe, they play a pretty good Big 12 team (Oklahoma State or TCU most likely) and I give them a shot at the win. But the extra practices for this young team might be the most valuable part of it all.
On one hand, the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible slides all Big Ten teams up a slot or two in the bowl pecking order, and I'm expecting a bloodbath for the conference again. But given MSU had so many close losses they'll probably be evenly-matched with whomever they face. I give the Spartans a decent chance for a bowl win, regardless of the opponent at this point.
Dantonio called the Minnesota game a program win. Your first reaction to that is probably a raised eyebrow (if you can manage it. I can. People's eyebrow). But those are the benchmarks that need to be met before you consistently compete at the highest level. In 2008, Dantonio called a win over a three-win Michigan team a game that "defined" his team. Breaking that losing streak was more important than just the win itself. Rallying to win a sixth game in 2012 after so many heartbreakers was a test for the program, and they passed.