Nov. 3, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's football season has devolved into a full-fledged conundrum.
The symptoms, exacerbated by giving up a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and losing to No. 21 Nebraska on a touchdown scored with six seconds remaining, may include aimless pacing and mindless muttering to no one in particular.
The riddle gripping MSU in the wake of Saturday's 28-24 defeat in Spartan Stadium is, "How many game-changing plays do you need to make before one counts?"
To be sure, the Spartans contributed mightily to their own demise by committing too many of what coach Mark Dantonio called "unforced penalties." And afterward, just about every one of them said they still could have won the game regardless if someone would have just made one more play on offense or defense.
But take the curious case of cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who is candidate for the team's No. 1 playmaker who wasn't.
With Michigan State leading 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Dennard seemingly put the game out of reach when he stepped in front of Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez's pass at the 4-yard line and weaved in and out of traffic like a New York taxi at rush hour until he reached the opposite end zone.
However, instead of getting credit for a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown, which would have been the second-longest in school history and presumably put the Spartans ahead by three scores, it was nullified by a personal foul penalty.
It seems that during the runback, fellow cornerback Johnny Adams was flagged for whatever it was he did well away from the play. The official walk-off was recorded as 10 yards, and MSU got the ball at its own 10-yard line.
In truth, it was a 90-yard penalty that more than doubles the effects of Michigan State's nine fouls for 100 yards because it also took seven points off the scoreboard.
Then, on Nebraska's last fateful drive, after the Spartans offense failed to pick up a first down on third-and-6 at the Cornhusker 43, Dennard was again in position to make a play.
With Nebraska out of time-outs while facing third-and-10 at the MSU 20, Martinez, who had run for 71- and 35-yard touchdowns earlier in the game, had to throw the ball or risk having time run out before the field-goal unit could try to send the game into overtime.
Dennard seemingly had inside position on Nebraska wideout Kenny Bell at the front, right corner of the end zone, and seemingly made a play on the ball. However, instead of giving the Spartans a shot at blocking a field-goal attempt, or at least playing for the win in overtime, Dennard was called for pass interference and the Cornhuskers got a new set of downs 15 yards closer to the end zone. Two plays later, Martinez was the one who made the decisive play on a 5-yard toss to Jamal Turner streaking through the end zone.
And just like that, one of the most unbearable losses of the Danonio era, which would have been one of the most improbable wins had it gone the other way given the way MSU's Big Ten-leading defense gave up 313 rushing yards, had the Spartans trying to explain the unexplainable and defend the indefensible.
"That was great D (defense) by 'Queze," said running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 188 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. "I don't know. Truthfully, I thought it was offensive pass interference (against Nebraska). That's why I thought they threw (the flag). That's how 'Queze is taught.
"I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."
Dantonio, who like any college coach speaks out about officiating at his own peril, maintained his composure while allowing the 5-5 Spartans, who had a seven-game November win streak dating back to 2010 snapped, any alibis during his postgame news conference.
"The interference call?" Dantonio said. "You guys make the call. Everybody will make the call on that one. Victory is fleeting, I guess you could say."
And fickle, to boot.
The drive that ended on Dennard's interception actually almost ended for the Cornhuskers on the first play when free safety Kurtis Drummond knocked the ball out of Martinez's hands. Strong safety Isaiah Lewis was among the Spartans who had a chance of recovering the ball and giving it to the offense inside the Nebraska 30. Instead, the Cornhuskers recovered for a 15-yard gain and a first down.
"That's the way the game sort of went," Dantonio said. "You don't really have an answer sometimes until you watch the film. And even then, the emotion's taken out of the game. You're seeing things for what they are. There's no way, really, to slow it down.
"Things are happening very fast out there and you have to deal with it and react and be instinctive. We had opportunities to win the football game, there's no question. We need to be smarter."
For example, Dantonio didn't see Adams' costly miscue because he was riveted by Dennard's remarkable return. Regardless, it was a mistake that needn't have been made regardless of who's ultimately responsible.
"I will say this," Dantonio said. "It's just a bad penalty to have, anyway you cut it."
In the second quarter, Drummond was called for one of MSU's four personal fouls when in the process of blitzing Martinez into throwing an incomplete pass on third-and-13, he slammed into him with his shoulder. Drummond was called for a "high hit," and even though it may have looked clean, and even though Nebraska didn't score on that drive, it shouldn't have happened.
"All I can tell you is the guy running up there making the hit should have been in coverage," Dantonio said. "He should have been back there 15 yards away. He had no business being up there on a quarterback sack. Unforced error on our part."
The Spartans are confronting the frustration that comes with four Big Ten losses by an average of 2.5 points and still in need of a win to become bowl-eligible with two games remaining with the only antidote they know - accountability.
Bell blamed himself for being stopped for a 4-yard gain on MSU's last possession when a 6-yarder would have provided a critical first down with 1:27 to go.
Offensive guard Chris McDonald said the offensive line didn't get the job done.
"We had a couple of opportunities to take it down there and end the game, and we couldn't do that," McDonald said. "I put that on our shoulders. It's our fault."
Dantonio second-guessed himself for not going for it on the ensuing fourth-and-2, and for ordering the maximum blitz that failed to produce the time-expiring sack.
"I wish there was a magic secret to it," said middle linebacker Max Bullough. "It's just that we need to finish and not have as many penalties. It's our fault. We're the ones getting the penalties. We had a chance to finish the game on defense and didn't do it.
"It's tough. It's kind of coming back to us after how many games we were able to win the last two years, and now it's the other way. We made a lot of plays today; obviously there are more we have to make."
Sometimes, the harder someone tries to solve a puzzle, the harder it becomes. With a bye coming up next Saturday before finishing the season at home against Northwestern and on the road at Minnesota, the Spartans are down to a time-honored last resort.
"We're going to take a deep breath, and exhale, and get back to work," Dantonio said.