Sept. 16, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Many will find this impossible to believe, but Michigan State has been in the position it's in today before.
So have most teams, for that matter.
And believe it or not, the sky didn't really fall, the world didn't really end and yes, they did win again.
Of course the 10th-ranked Spartans' 20-3 loss to No. 20 Notre Dame Saturday night shook what had been a supremely confident team down to its marrow. And it's especially disorienting when presumed areas of strength are exploited the way the Fighting Irish did against MSU in Spartan Stadium.
The shutdown defense couldn't make the key stops. Lockdown defensive backs came loose. The offensive line that was supposed to be more athletic, experienced and coordinated than any of its recent predecessors had difficulty with run-blocking and pass protection. The receiving corps that was said to only need a little more seasoning before emerging as a productive group had butter fingers.
The Spartans will be the first to tell you they didn't look good while falling to 2-1 with one non-conference game, against Eastern Michigan, to go before opening Big Ten play.
However, while jumping to irrational conclusions is an all-too typical reaction by otherwise rational people to such situations, history has repeatedly cautioned against basing anything on one game.
The one thing the Spartans did do well in the aftermath is keep their second-straight loss to the Fighting Irish in as many seasons in perspective.
"I think this humbles us a little bit and it helps us understand what teams can do to beat us, and that's to counteract our aggressive attitude," said middle linebacker Max Bullough, who had five tackles. "And now that we have that I think that we're going to be better as a defense.
"But it doesn't affect our confidence. Our goals are still intact and in front of us. So we need to understand the importance of that."
As out of sorts as Michigan State looked, it just missed out on a number of tide-changing plays, whether it was:
-- Star cornerback Johnny Adams losing track of the Notre Dame receiver John Goodman on a 36-yard throwback pass from the right hashmarks to the left corner of the end zone in the first quarter;
-- Wideout Bennie Fowler dropping what would have been the score-tying touchdown pass in the end zone;
-- Bullough losing control of the ball on what the field officials ruled an interception but which the replay official deemed incomplete when MSU was a momentum-shifting play away from getting back in contention.
There was also a roughing-the-kicker penalty, and a chance to stuff the Irish at their own 4-yard line in the fourth quarter, only to see them drive 84 yards for the victory-sealing field goal.
But finally, there was an a-ha moment, courtesy of Bullough.
"As much of an eye-opener as it was last year, it is this year," he said.
The Spartans actually were in the exact same position last season after losing to Notre Dame, 31-13. And four impressive wins later, they suffered an even more damaging 24-3 loss at Nebraska.
And believe it or not, MSU still went on to win the Legends Division and were one play away from beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and going to the Rose Bowl.
Although head coach Mark Dantonio has never been shy about his belief in this team, he never encouraged Spartan fans to go ahead and book those non-refundable flights to Pasadena.
"The message to our players is very simple," he said. "Football can define you, and we have to pick up the pieces. We had a tough deal with Notre Dame last year, and we responded. That's what we need to do.
"I've said all along that rankings are for people drinking the Kool-Aid. It's always about how you respond to adverse situations. That's what this game should teach you and that's what it's all about. People have praised us and now they're going to say it's an aberration. It is what it is, and we will start fresh."
Believe it or not, all looked lost in 2010 when the previously undefeated Spartans were clobbered by Iowa, 37-6. They responded by winning their last three games to claim a share of the Big Ten Championship.
In 1987, after a spectacular start with a 27-13 victory on Labor Day night, Michigan State looked inept in a 31-8 loss at Notre Dame and like a lost cause after a 31-3 drubbing at the hands of Florida State. And believe it or not, the Spartans came back to win the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl.
The doom and gloom was as thick as fog in '88 after Michigan State got off to a 0-4-1 start, which, ironically, included a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame. All that team did is defy those who had it dead and buried by going 6-1-1 in the Big Ten and playing in the Gator Bowl.
There's no way to sugarcoat a bad loss. The Spartans netted only 50 rushing yards and put the weight of the comeback on the shoulders of quarterback Andrew Maxwell in just his third game as a starter. The offense never made it to the red zone and failed to reach the end zone at home for the first time since, ironically, a 20-3 loss to Central Michigan in the 1991 season opener.
There was a dearth of explosive plays by the offense, and the defense couldn't buy a turnover.
But, believe it or not, it's not like Michigan State hasn't been here before, and all the critical talk that's sure to follow will have absolutely no bearing on where it ends up.
"We don't have to deal with that," Fowler said. "We're just going to look at ourselves and we'll be able to make the plays next week. It's going to be an intense week of practice. There's going to be a lot of competition, especially in the receiver group because we had some dropped balls.
"We'll be fine."
Believe it or not.