Oct. 13, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The hopeful talk of still having team goals in sight has been replaced out of necessity with brave pledges of reassessment and recommitment.
A mind-numbing, 19-16, double-overtime loss to Iowa will do that to a Michigan State team that entered the season with so much ambition and optimism.
The defeat was sealed when quarterback Andrew Maxwell's northbound second-and-9 pass: was deflected at the line of scrimmage, glanced off wide receiver Keith Mumphery's hands and was intercepted by Hawkeyes cornerback Greg Castillo at the 16-yard line.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw it happen," said Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell, whose eighth career 100-yard rushing game went for naught. "But once I saw the ball tipped I knew (Castillo) was going to catch it.
"It's just the worst feeling in the world when you know you've come up short, but we're going to get over it and get back to the grind."
It may be as easy as that, especially with Michigan coming up next Saturday in Ann Arbor, where a four-game winning streak against the Wolverines will be on the line.
Then again, the Spartans, who dropped to 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten Legends Division, could be in for one of the most psychologically and emotionally challenging weeks of their lives.
Every team reacts to adversity differently and no two players respond exactly the same to anything. And certainly, under head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have demonstrated an almost uncanny propensity for getting up off the mat after getting knocked down.
However, history is written down so cautionary tales can be told over and over again, and none parallels the situation MSU now finds itself in than that of the 24-21 loss to Iowa on Oct. 4, 1986.
The Spartans were 2-1 heading into the game against Iowa in Spartan Stadium and optimistic about their chances in the Big Ten. That game also came down to MSU's final series but the situation was looking bright when quarterback Dave Yarema lined the offense up 4 yards from the north end zone.
After taking the snap, Yarema rolled right. However, the intended receiver, Rich Gicewicz, couldn't get off the line of scrimmage because the defensive end pulled him to the ground by his facemask, and Iowa defensive back Ken Sims picked off Yarema's desperation pass in the end zone.
What followed was the darkest week of Michigan State practice in recent memory, and not even an upcoming game at Michigan could remove the gloom. The Spartans lost an uncompetitive 27-6 game against U-M, and although they bounced back to win their next three games and finish with a 6-5 record were denied a bowl bid.
Perhaps the opportunity to atone for so many near-misses that could have changed the outcome of this season's Iowa game, along with losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State, by playing for an unprecedented fifth-straight victory over their archrival will take care of itself.
But, there are no guarantees and Dantonio wasn't taking any chances.
He immediately assumed ownership of the situation and began the process to prevent one loss defaulting into two.
"You go from an opportunity to win at the end of the football game to losing it in a split-second," Dantonio said. "It's tough for our players to deal with as well as our coaches and I'm sure a lot of people.
"I keep going back to when we're not successful it's about life a little bit. You've got to take it as it comes and you can't be overwhelmed by it. You have to be able to bring something out of it and you have to go forward. There's no other option with that."
"...You can't be overwhelmed by it."
With the fourth sentence of his postgame press conference, Dantonio identified the most important things the Spartans will do this week. Whether they accomplish that goal will help determine whether they'll have a chance to achieve others that will make a difference in this season when a difference can still be had.
"The message here to our football team is look forward, don't look backwards, it can always get worse," Dantonio said. "We've got Michigan next week. We need to make sure that we're ready to play that football game mentally right.
"Deal with this today. Look at it tomorrow and move on. We need to reevaluate where we're at and push through the tough times and that's what you do when you're a competitor."
However, even the fiercest competitors are susceptible to human nature, especially when the stars seemed lined up against them.
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard could have all but ended the game in MSU's favor on Iowa's possession in the second OT period had he held onto the ball for an interception in the corner of the end zone.
The Spartans defense might have avoided overtime entirely had it lined up correctly before Mark Weisman, a walk-on transfer from Air Force who was switched from fullback to tailback because Iowa's top two ball-carriers are injured, broke an off-tackle run outside for a 37-yard gain. Three plays later, his 5-yard touchdown capped a nine-play, 68-yard drive that tied the score at 13-13 with 55 seconds remaining.
Michigan State missed a chance to add to its 10-3 lead with time running out in the first quarter after Maxwell completed a 19-yard pass to Mumphery. Mixed signals resulted in the field-goal team running onto the field, Maxwell running off instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock and Dan Conroy never trying a 49-yard field goal because the clock expired.
"We can't let this game define our season," Mumphery said.
"I think everybody realizes that we have to get this loss out of our mind and focus all on Michigan," said outside linebacker Denicos Allen.
Dantonio said that when he and his assistant coaches review the game video, they will see at least 15-20 razor-close plays that might have tipped the outcome in MSU's favor.
"It's very frustrating when you come up short on all our losses," said Bell. "I feel we played a pretty good game, but there are little things here and there we could have done better. We know we took some tough losses, but we've got to keep going forward and stay together. It's tough, whether you lose by 50 or by two, a loss is a loss. It's always tough.
"I think guys are still confident. (Michigan) would be a good win for us. That's why we're looking forward to having a great practice next week and make sure we get that win down there."
The time for talking themselves through the healing process ended Saturday night.
Now, said Dantonio, "it's gut-check time."