Sept. 29, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - George Perles answered every hypothetical question regarding his Michigan State football team with the same five words during his tenure as head coach from 1983-94.
"I don't play what if," he'd say without elaboration, explanation or apology.
Those are words for any competitor to live by, lest he be consumed by thoughts of what could have been if only...
And that's the way it has to be for the Spartans in the hours and days following Saturday's 17-16 loss to No. 14 Ohio State.
Instead of dwelling on:
-- What if starting center and inspirational leader Travis Jackson hadn't sustained what appears to be a season-ending leg injury;
-- Or what if an illegal formation penalty didn't wipe up a tight end Dion Sims' catch for a long-gainer in the red zone and force the offense to settle for a field goal early in the third quarter;
-- Or what if an official hadn't whistled dead what likely would have been a fumble return for a touchdown by Kurtis Drummond.
Michigan State is committed to:
-- Dealing with what is, which isn't easy after a one-point decision that could have turned the other way on one play, one decision, one fewer error.
"You deal with it by not looking back and making sure you correct the mistake and make sure there's something inside you that ticks you off," said Marcus Rush, who with a forced fumble, batted down pass and five tackles played well enough to be enjoying a victory instead of lamenting a loss. "The (Drummond play) was unfortunate, but there's no excuse for that to be an excuse.
"There were other plays we needed to make both offensively and defensively. Now it's a matter of us bouncing back."
It was interesting to hear sixth-year Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio, who often makes a point of focusing on what's ahead of his team, echo Perles' sentiments afterward.
"You lose a game 17 to 16, you have a tendency to say `what if' a lot," Dantonio said. "When you lose by one point it's a big failure. But I can handle the mistakes if our guys play hard, compete, play with energy, take what you've got and keep moving forward.
"We've still got to grow as a football team, but we played better and even with a loss I thought we played very competitively with a good football that has a couple guys who can make some plays."
Braxton Miller, the quicksilver Buckeye quarterback, repeatedly turned what could have been big stops for the Spartans into big plays for Ohio State and ended up with 136 yards on 23 carries.
Nevertheless, except for the 75-yard touchdown drive Miller orchestrated on the game-opening possession and the 63-yard touchdown pass he threw to Devin Smith, who made the catch with MSU cornerback Johnny Adams crowding his shadow late in the third quarter, the Spartans held Miller's production to manageable levels.
The Michigan State wide receiving corps dropped another handful of passes, but they showed marked improvement while catching 11 Andrew Maxwell passes. The Spartans took their only lead, 13-10 in the third quarter, on Keith Mumphery's first career touchdown.
It was virtuoso, 29-yard performance by Mumphery, who eluded the grasp of one Buckeye at the 20 and then broke four tackles along the way before dragging two other OSU defenders into the end zone.
"The only thing on my mind was effort because the (coaches) had been preaching that all week," Mumphery said. "Effort gets you a lot of things you want in life. Even though we still had drops, we did great. Everything is there and if we do the little things right, everything will fall in place.
"I said I had to get into the end zone for my teammates. When you lose, it's always frustrating, but we got better in a lot of things. We've just got to move forward and learn."
Maxwell completed 22 of 42 passes for 269 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. While his performance was again diminished by the drops, a couple of errant throws and the call-back of Sims' catch, "he played well enough to win," Dantonio said. "He threw the ball very effectively."
If anybody could sing the what-if blues it's Maxwell, but he had already moved on to next Saturday's Big Ten road-opener at Indiana.
"I think it starts with realizing all of our goals are still intact," Maxwell said. "Obviously, we can still win our side (the Legends Division) of the conference, we still have a chance to go to Indianapolis and we still have a chance to go to Pasadena.
"If we play like we did today, if we play Michigan State football the way that we trained to, and we stay together, we're going to win our fair share and have a chance at it."
Certainly, MSU has issues to resolve. The Buckeyes loaded up their defense to stop the run and make the Spartans beat them through the air, and the result was a 45-yard rushing performance on 17 carries by Le'Veon Bell, who ran for 253 a week earlier.
"A couple of inches there, a couple of inches here could have made the difference in the game, but those plays didn't go our way," said Bell, who led the Spartans in receiving with eight catches for 58 yards. "We got to learn from it and move on. A lot of positive things came out of this game. We passed the ball well. A team can't just game-plan on just stopping me."
The defense forced three turnovers but the offense only got three points out of them. The Spartans survived a blocked punt in the second quarter thanks to a fumble recovered by the defense, but the defense couldn't stop Ohio State from running out the final 4:10 on a drive that started at its own 18.
Asked whether the one-point loss was especially hard to take because the game was there for the taking, Rush espoused the Perles philosophy.
"You can't do much about it now," he said. "I firmly believe that if you're playing with your heart on every down, you're going to make plays."