Sept. 22, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - At first blush, Michigan State's 17-13 loss to No. 22-ranked Notre Dame seemed to continue the theme established with six exceedingly frustrating losses last season and which inspired the motto for 2013: "Find the inches."
The Spartans left legendary Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night still in search of the winning margins against teams in the Fighting Irish class of opponent - such as those they'll face in the upcoming Big Ten season - but it felt differently to those tempered by the heat of battle.
"When you think about it, you've got to be proud of where we had growth," said sixth-year senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover. "We also have so many areas where we can improve. All we can ask is that our guys leave it all out there. If they do, then we're happy and we're going to grow and we're going to get better.
"Watching our offense drive the ball and be able to carry it for that much time, once they start finishing we're going to be a dominant team. That's the point of playing Notre Dame. It shows we can make plays and play with the best. We're proud. We left it all out there physically and emotionally, and we know we can get better and do damage in the Big Ten."
It's often said that there's no such thing as a good loss, but this one could have been, maybe even should have been, so much worse.
Each of Notre Dame's three scoring drives was aided, abetted, sustained and enabled by a remarkable four pass-interference penalties, and one holding penalty called in the secondary, against MSU defensive backs.
The Irish took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter after picking up a penalty-aided first down on third-and-9. They took a 10-7 advantage into the locker room at halftime after pass-interference foul on fourth-and-1 led to a touchdown with 17 seconds remaining.
With the score tied at 10-10, Notre Dame benefitted from a double-whammy and potential 14-point swing that began to unfold late in the third quarter. First, on second-and-10 at the Michigan State 37-yard line, it appeared cornerback Darqueze Dennard snuffed out an Irish threat with an interception in the end zone and return of about 30 yards to decent field position.
However, Dennard was flagged for interfering with the receiver before making the catch, and the officials moved the ball to the 22. Two pass plays went incomplete and on the first play of the fourth quarter it appeared cornerback Trae Waynes had successfully defended a third-and-10 pass and force the Irish to try a field goal.
But, the flag came out again, Notre Dame was back in business with first-and-goal-to-go at the 7 and two plays later built a 17-10 lead.
Head coach Mark Dantonio cautiously confessed he had never seen one of his teams found guilty of so many interference penalties.
"I've been coaching 30-plus years," he said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there. Cut off the receiver, have position for the ball, go up and make a play on the ball. (The defender) has every right to make a play on the ball. There's bumping and pushing on both sides a lot of times.
"They're very close calls. I'm in agreement with that - they're close calls."
Some might say they were a matter of inches.
What didn't happen to MSU, throughout the course of the game, actually, while losing by four points or less in its last five defeats dating back to last season, was significant.
Despite failing to capitalize on the first blocked punt suffered by the Irish in five years when their first drive ended with a missed field goal, despite an aberrant number of pass interference penalties, despite settling for two second-half field goals by true freshman Michael Geiger and despite a high-stakes gamble with a trick play that resulted in an interception, the Spartans didn't unravel.
With the defense allowing just 224 total yards, the fewest in the four-year Brian Kelly coaching era at Notre Dame, and running backs Jeremy Langford (68 yards on 14 carries) and Nick Hill (34 on 13) moving the ball effectively at times, MSU still had a chance to win down the stretch.
After the Irish scored for the final time, quarterback Connor Cook, in his first career start on the road, drove MSU 51 yards in 10 plays for a 42-yard field goal with 10:40 remaining. There was still plenty of time to win the game, but Michigan State's last three possessions stalled out.
While the frustration continued to mount, it never turned into a defeatist's sense of futility, which Cook said is critical.
"I'm still excited for our football team," said Cook, who completed 16 of 32 passes for 135 yards and one touchdown. "We've just got to finish drives. We can't finish with field goals. We've got to score touchdowns. Once you get the ball in the red zone, you've got to execute and score touchdowns.
"I think it showed how tough we are. We really ran the ball well and wore down their defense, but we couldn't execute in the red zone. That's the thing we really need to improve on and the thing we weren't good at last year. But this is only the beginning."
Cook was pulled on the final series in favor of former starter Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incompletions and ran for 8 yards on fourth-and-20. Dantonio said he made the switch "to try to change the pace."
However, Cook was assured by quarterbacks coach Brad Salem that he will remain MSU's No. 1 quarterback through the bye week and heading into the Big Ten opener at Iowa on Oct. 5.
Meantime, the search for the inches will continue, though Dantonio indicated the Spartans are fractionally closer.
"I thought we played hard," he said. "I thought we had an opportunity to win the football game. We left some questions on the field, obviously, but nevertheless, I'm very proud of our football team.
"We did what we had to do in terms of defense - I felt we played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball. You've got to be able to play through adversity. We'll do that."