Nothing To See Here

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After two weeks of progress, MSU's offense backslid quite a bit, but did what was needed to support the defense's stellar effort in a win- a fact overlooked by rankings voters. Should we have expected anything else?

Let's get something straight right off the bat: 28 points was far too large a spread to entrust this offense with, even against a team as weak as [REDACTED]. MSU had only cleared 28 points in 2 games this year: once against FCS Youngstown State, and against Kevin Wilson's defenseophobe Hoosiers. To create a 28-point gap with reasonable expectations for this offense, MSU would have had to shut the Boilermakers out. Never mind that that turned out to be the doable part; scoring 42 on a completely inept defense in perfect weather should not have translated into a 4-score spread when the temperature dropped 30 degrees, the wind picked up, and the field was a marsh for the first half.

I'm not a betting man, so honestly I maintain only a passing interest in point spreads. I don't even find them particularly informative for what the outside world expects to happen in a given game, because that's not what spreads are for. They don't attempt to predict how the game will actually come out. Rather, they attempt to set a line enticing enough to encourage roughly equal betting on both sides of it.

But in a world where voters will place Missouri at #5 by dint of beating the M*A*S*H remnants of Georgia and a Florida squad that is the SEC's version of MSU in terms of balance, outside perception matters. And when you get a spread as large as 28 and fail to come even close to covering, a lot of observers are going to assume the team that failed to cover had a miserable day. A lot of observers, for example, with AP ballots.

I've seen plenty of commentary from MSU fans professing not to care about rankings, anticipating that if the team keeps improving and keeps winning, we'll get our due. I'll file a quick objection to that line of thinking, because regardless of how many times the coaches chant that all of our goals are still in front of us, it never hurts to hedge your bets somewhat. If we aren't able to navigate a tough November stretch schedule, or to beat Ohio State in the CCG assuming we can make it out of the Legends, it would certainly be a nice consolation prize to be in position for a BCS at-large.

When I raise this point, my fellow Spartans tend to reach for the tinfoil. Whether MSU has deserved a BCS bid in the recent past (I think they have, but I REALLY do not want to relive those conversations, now or ever again) is not relevant. What is relevant is the lessons we have learned from those unfortunate misses, foremost among them being that you cannot leave anything to chance when you occupy the less-than-charmed position in the college football hierarchy that MSU does. MSU gets no undeserved respect because of its name. MSU also doesn't play in the SEC, and therefore cannot rise 20 spots in a week by winning a single game. Every opportunity to impress voters must be seized, which brings me to my real point:

Yes, I am displeased that MSU didn't grind Purdue into dust. I'm also not surprised that MSU didn't. I almost used the phrasing "disappointed," but that would imply that I'd expected something that didn't materialize. By now, it's clear enough to me what I should expect out of this team that there wasn't much in the way of expectations to be failed. I expected to win. I hoped we could make it impressive. And I am not surprised that we didn't.

I do sympathize somewhat with the rebuilding job that the Boiler faithful will be enduring for the next couple of seasons, much like I suspect Dantonio sympathizes with his fellow coaches when he declines to go for the throat when an opponent is down. And give them their due, Purdue certainly wanted it, especially in the first half, a helluva lot more than MSU did. This plays back into that expectations thing. It's probably hard, as a player looking at a 28-point line, to think anything but "who's up next?", and the results on the field reflected that for much of the game.

But motivation aside, respect for opponent aside, and limitations of MSU's own offense aside, this is an opponent that has been fortunate to win the one game they have so far. The narrative I've seen in game recaps is pretty simple, and pretty accurate: Connor Cook missed some open receivers, Purdue did a better-than-expected job moving the football, but ultimately the defense was just too good for Purdue to break through, and the MSU offense eventually found enough of a groove to ice the game.

And, beneath the surface, there continued to be some troubling undercurrents, as well. Cook's footwork continues to be a hodgepodge of excellence one play, high school-level the next. The offensive coaches continue to insist on a playcalling balance that is producing a suboptimal result on the field, with a side fetish for getting too cute at mostly the wrong times. At this point, I expect Cook to steadily improve, and for the coaches to just keep doing what they do. Who knows, maybe one of these days a 3-yard route to a covered receiver on 3rd and 7 will result in a first down.

I don't want to be as existentially pessimistic as this article, on the whole, now reads. But as I've said elsewhere, this season is a prime opportunity, ripe for the taking. The other division contenders have flaws of varying severity, and even OSU hasn't looked invincible, though they certainly have this winning thing down better than anyone else hereabouts. This defense is stacked to the rafters, with a coordinator who's almost certain to get the head coaching offer he's been waiting for after the season ends. The offense is now getting close to the level of competency needed to back up the defense- but it's not there yet, at least not with any consistency.

The narrative about MSU all season has been that, if this offense makes some progress, the team will be "right there." The problem, as I see it, is that we've been "right there" before. And things just don't break our way. MSU needs to be more than "right there", it needs to seize every small chance to elevate itself that it can. And producing one of those ticker scores that makes you say 'whoa, what a bloodbath' is one of those small chances. Yes, Dantonio is right when he says the win matters most. But it's not the only thing. I hate the polling system as much as anyone, but for now, it plays a big role in a team's postseason fate, and MSU doesn't do itself any favors when it lets weak teams keep it close.

At 6-1 and in good position in the division, maybe it's too early to be wringing hands about all this. I certainly expect a much more focused team to take the field in Champaign on Saturday, even with the Michigan game coming the following week. All I know is MSU has been here before. And frankly, I have no desire to see Alabama in the Capital One Bowl again.

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