Oct. 20, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Losing to Michigan for the first time in five years is supposed to hurt a Michigan State football player. It should induce a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and cause sleepless moments spent pondering how things might have changed in the Spartans' favor if only he had done this, that or something else a little better.
And when the Spartans don't give up a touchdown to a team that was averaging 34 points per game, and when that unprecedented fifth-straight victory was within their grasp until a field goal cleared the bar with five seconds remaining, and now that the chance to defend their Legends Division title and return to the Big Ten championship game is effectively over, the disappointment should even penetrate the marrow deep inside their bones.
However, just as MSU (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) played for the incredible highs that came with the dramatic wins of the previous two seasons, so too did it sign up for unspeakable pain that accompanies a 12-10 loss on four Wolverine field goals.
When taken together with the 17-16 defeat to Ohio State and the 19-16 stumble in overtime defeat against Iowa, the Spartans' three conference setbacks have been by a total of six points.
"We had a chance to win it at the end, and that's not the first time that's happened this year, but that's sports, and that's athletics and things hinge on the inches," said head coach Mark Dantonio. "We asked our players to man up, to play with pride, confidence and toughness, and we did that.
"In the end, you have to take what comes down the road and be able to stomach it. We'll be all right. We'll rise up."
Instead of leaving an indelible mark in the record book, the Spartans are enduring back-to-back defeats since closing out the 2009 season with losses against Penn State and Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.
The misfortune that had been rolling up on MSU all season snowballed even more when it was learned that left offensive tackle Dan France would miss what would have been his 21st consecutive start because of a concussion sustained earlier in the week.
That meant the Spartans would be going up against the division co-leader with their sixth different starting offensive line combination in eight games as former starting tackles France and Fou Fonoti, and center Travis Jackson watched from the sideline. It also meant Donavon Clark, a promising red-shirt freshman whose only game experience game at Central Michigan six games earlier, would get his first career start.
Nevertheless, MSU soldiered on.
With the defense corralling run-happy quarterback Denard Robinson just as it did in the two previous wins over U-M, the Spartans trailed only 6-0 at halftime.
And with the offense suddenly clicking like it had relatively few times all season, Michigan State drove 80 yards to take a tenuous 7-6 lead in the third quarter. Wide receiver Tony Lippett provided the key play when he took the handoff on a reverse with the intent of throwing a pass. But, when the protection broke down, he scrambled 10 yards to set up Andrew Maxwell's 2-yard touchdown pass to tight end Paul Lang, who was playing in place of the injured Dion Sims.
Michigan regained a two-point advantage on Brendan Gibbons' 21-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, but then the daringly definitive momentum-shifter for which the Spartans had become known under Dantonio, finally unfolded for the first time this season on the seventh play of their first drive of the final period.
The possession, which started at the MSU 9-yard line, appeared to stall out after 14 yards. However, on an improbable gamble on fourth-and-9, punter Mike Sadler executed a perfect fake for a 26-yard gain that ended out of bounds in front of U-M coach Brady Hoke.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, while the 90-yard drive went on for a total of 18 plays, it also won't go down in history because it came to a stop on Le'Veon Bell's 3-yard sweep 1-yard short of the goal line. Dan Conroy put Michigan State ahead, 10-9, but Gibbons countered that with a 38-yarder that was set up by Robinson's heady 20-yard completion to Drew Dileo with nine seconds remaining.
Sadler's run didn't even warrant a nickname.
In retrospect, the Spartans showed signs of putting it all together. The wide receivers, who had been plagued by dropped passes in previous games, made 16 of MSU's 21 catches, some while under duress.
"It hurts, but you got to take it like a man and take it on the chin and learn from it," said Lippett, who had five catches for 39 yards. "We're not going to sit here and pout about anything. We're going to grind it out next week and try to get one at Wisconsin."
It would be understandable if frustration started taking a toll on the Spartans, who overcame the heartbreaking loss to Iowa to play Michigan to a draw in every statistical category but the only one that counts.
However, senior offensive guard Chris McDonald doesn't expect his teammates to be overwhelmed.
"It sucks, but what are you going to do about it?" he said. "You just have to respond. We've got Wisconsin next. It's going to be a good game at their place. You can't really dwell on what if this, what if that? You just have to know that we're a great football team and our season would be totally different if we made different plays.
"If we keep on going after it, big plays will happen and that's all we need. On Sunday, we're going to get that feeling out of our stomach and move on to Wisconsin."
In 1910, President Theodore Roosevelt put the importance of competing in football in these terms: "It is not the critic who counts. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Dantonio shined a contemporary light the plight the Spartans now face and the importance of dealing with it.
"We'll be back up next week, we'll have our confidence and be ready to play," he said. "It's tough. You feel bad because you know you're very close to having three (more) wins. But it is what it is, and sometimes, you have to look at that and deal with it.
"This is one of the years that we have to do that right now, at this point in time. Shoulda, coulda doesn't really get it. We just have to play through it and in the end this needs to make us stronger. I truly believe that when you go through things like this, it does make you stronger and it builds character.
"You don't like it at the time, but it does."