Coming off a 7-6 queasefest, 2013 could have gone a lot of ways for MSU. Happily, pretty much everything came up Spartans. So how did MSU go from also-ran in a middling bowl game to arguably the best season in school history?
A Quick Look Back: Where We Started
In a great deal of anxiety, frankly. 2010 and 2011 were, at the time, an all-time great pair of seasons. Head coach Mark Dantonio's painstaking work had paid off as his first full recruiting classes had churned out 22 wins, a shared conference title, and a trip to the first B1GCCG that left the team a play or two away from Pasadena. 2012, a campaign that was supposed to be a relatively painless changing of the guard, had been a season fraught with close losses, offensive ineptitude, and no shortage of demands for assistant coach heads to roll.
The offseason had done very little to help any of this. Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims, the two functional weapons from 2012's offense, had scampered for the league. Most of the attention was on a reopened quarterback competition, which at times had as many as four serious candidates. Fan reaction was...mixed...when 2012 starter Andrew Maxwell was tabbed once again for the season opener against Western Michigan.
Overshadowed somewhat by all the hand-wringing over an offense that hadn't done much of anything right in over a calendar year was the potential of the defense. That side of the ball was loaded with talented and experienced upperclassmen who had all spent multiple years in Pat Narduzzi's system, which had already turned out very, very good results the previous two seasons. With NFL prospects at all three levels, the thought was that the offense had merely to be competent, and this defense could carry the team very far with against a comparatively easy schedule.
Nonconference: The Oh-God-Not-This-Again Phase
Early in the year, the offseason worrying looked to be rather well-justified. The QB competition dragged on, perhaps assisted by the coaches not giving any of the candidates enough leash to build a rhythm. The search for Le'Veon Bell's replacement looked little better. The receivers continued to not so much receive as be struck in the hands by passes which then fell to the turf. Tight ends were on the field, I guess, but you'd be forgiven for not noticing. Even the new kicker, Kevin Muma, picked up right where his predecessor left off by missing makeable field goals when points were at a premium. The offense became/remained a national punchline, and struggled hard against Western Michigan and South Florida teams that would win a total of 3 games between them over the entire season.
Dat defense, tho. Turns out "Best on the Planet" didn't really capture the power of this fully armed and operational battle defense. Over the first two games, DE Shilique Calhoun outscored MSU's offense by himself with 3 defensive TDs. That, of course, was a statistical anomaly that even MSU's torpid offense would undo, but Calhoun's penchant for the splash play certainly helped MSU fans forget the third early departure from 2012, William Gholston. Meanwhile, Trae Waynes stepped into Johnny Adams' shoes at corner and barely missed a beat opposite Thorpe-winner-to-be Darqueze Dennard. A much-improved offense in the Youngstown State game, coupled with the fearsomeness of the defense, restored some confidence in the fanbase.
Then the team went to South Bend.
As I noted in a recap, Notre Dame was expected to win; they still looked something like the outfit that had gone to the national title 9 months earlier, and MSU's offense remained a hot mess. This game, however, felt like one that should have been in the win column. Beyond a hail of pass interference calls that ranged from legit to completely bogus, the coaches' decision to pull Connor Cook and reinsert Andrew Maxwell for a 2-minute drill triggered a firestorm of criticism. Maxwell had, by that point, comprehensively demonstrated he wasn't going to be a productive quarterback, yet the coaches still viewed him as the best option in that situation.
And so, out he trotted, having not played for nearly 2 weeks, for what would be perhaps the least well-executed 2-minute drill of all time. And so, home the Spartans came with a loss in a game wherein they outplayed the Irish for the most part. And so, into the first bye we go with no wins of any consequence and, apparently, no answer as to who the freaking quarterback is.
B1G Schedule, Phase I: Iowa and the Cellar-Dwellers Would Be A Good Name For A Band
Whatever was going through the coaches' minds when they nudged Andrew Maxwell onto the field in the South Bend, the bye week exorcised it.
After a week of speculation about whether Maxwell's reappearance on the field meant he would retain the starter's job after all, Connor Cook took every snap in Iowa City- and what do you know, looked pretty good doing it. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Bennie Fowler had the best games of their careers to that point, and MSU came away with a valuable road win.
And then, the stretch wherein everyone declared that nothing could really be learned because of the horrendousness of the opponents, a difficult point to argue as Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois would finish the season with a combined 10-26 overall record, and just 4-20 in Big Ten play.
Indiana showed that, to an extent, the invincible defense wasn't so invincible, especially against deep receiving corps and high-tempo offenses, but eventually failed to score on every possession, as their own defense made necessary.
Purdue is still a confusing game to me. Against a team that was objectively atrocious in nearly all regards, MSU could not score an offensive touchdown until the 4th quarter, and even then, they broke out a fancy little trick play to do it (why, by the way, did we never see that formation again? The constraint plays available tickle the fancy). Still, a win's a win and a shutout's a shutout.
It was the Illinois game that was, perhaps, the most encouraging. In a classic trap game setup the week before playing the hated instate rival, MSU went to Champaign and escorted the Illini from the stadium to the nearest woodshed. If Purdue was a misfire, Illinois was the team firing on all cylinders.
Most observers rightfully retained some skepticism about the value of that win, because a nearly 2-year-long conference losing streak on the opponent's part will do that. But with a head-to-head win over Iowa in hand, Michigan having lost to Penn State, Northwestern entering the Death Spiral portion of its year in earnest, and Nebraska looking lost on defense, the division was there for the taking. First, though, a certain wooden lumberjack needed liberation.
B1G Schedule, Phase II: Take From Them, Everything
November 2. Michigan @ Michigan State. Remember, at the time, Michigan's facade hadn't totally caved in yet, and there were still valid doubts about how MSU's reconstituted offense would perform against a defense with real, live players with a real, live coach (not sure why Iowa didn't count on this front, but whatevs, that's what people were saying).
Initially the game looked a lot- too much, really- like the 2012 version. Neither offense could do much of anything. And then, the breakthrough touchdown from Cook to Fowler. As big as that was, the game was over (officially, according to a mistaken ESPN boxscore) when, following an interception that gave their offense good field position, Michigan coughed up sacks on three consecutive plays to back all the way out of field goal range. The Wolverines might as well have walked off the field, down the tunnel and out of the stadium after that.
After the second bye, MSU held off a wounded, mistake-prone, yet very game Nebraska team to notch its first win over the Huskers in school history. It's fair to wonder what Nebraska could have done with its full complement of players, but that's the nature of the game. Even in a home environment as supportive as Lincoln, five turnovers is a lot to overcome. Beyond the satisfaction of Mark Dantonio having beaten every other team in the Big Ten, this win put MSU in a dominant position in the Legends division standings.
The following week, the last true road game of the season, featured MSU's fanbase as the latest to invade Ryan Field. This game, incidentally, featured the single play most emblematic of Northwestern's season, when a deflected pass fluttered over a Northwestern defender and into the hands of Bennie Fowler, who dashed 87 yards for a touchdown. Or maybe the most Northwestern moment was when Kain Colter was knocked out with a concussion early in the first quarter. Hard to say. I might have felt a little sympathy when leaving the stadium, but my face was too chapped to feel anything.
Senior Day against Minnesota was a bit of an odd one. Maybe the team was a little too loose, knowing a date with Ohio State was waiting in the CCG regardless of this game's outcome. For the first time, a team convincingly beat MSU in time of possession, but Minnesota was so thoroughly mystified by the concept of the forward pass (Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner combined to go 9-25 for less than 150 yards, with 2 INTs) that they could do nothing with the ball despite holding it for so long. In any case, Minnesota had no more luck solving the Spartan D than most of the season's opponents had, and MSU locked up its first 8-0 conference season.
Postseason: B1G Lights, B1G Stage(s), B1G Wins
Up to this point, 2013 was a very good season, but 'great' was still out there for the taking. After all, this team had been close, so, so close, in 2010 and 2011 only to fall short.
Predictably, MSU entered the B1GCCG an underdog to Ohio State, which, other than a narrow escape at Michigan the previous week, had spent most of its year steamrolling whatever was placed in front of it.
But lo and behold, it was the Spartans that would break out to a 17-point lead. Of course, OSU would follow with the next 24, but then eschewed an effective ground attack in favor of a pass game that just wasn't working against the Spartan secondary. MSU responded with another 17-point burst to finish the game.
The Rose Bowl, by contrast, was a story of withstanding Stanford's initial push and then gradually overpowering them. After falling behind 10-0, MSU outscored the Cardinal 24-10 the rest of the way. In particular, Stanford's insistence on running up the middle on third and fourth downs doomed them, and set up the game's iconic moment as former walk-on Kyler Elsworth, standing in for suspended captain Max Bullough, leapt over the pile to deny Stanford the first down and effectively end the game.
So there you have it. Save for the stumble in South Bend, MSU's 2013 could not have gone any better. The team loses 4 starters on offense and 6 on defense, but has relatively experienced depth at many of those positions. A school-record 13 wins, the first outright conference championship in over a decade, and the first Rose Bowl trip and win since 1988. Not. Too. Shabby. Why can't this season just continue to happen for all time? Wouldn't that be the best? Ow. Ow! Stop throwing things, Northwestern fans, your problems aren't my fault.
Passing- Connor Cook, 2,755 yards, 58.7 completion %, 22 TD, 6 INT
Rushing- Jeremy Langford, 1,422 yards, 4.9 ypc, 18 TD; Nick Hill, 357 yards, 5.1 ypc, 1 TD
Receiving- Bennie Fowler, 36 rec, 622 yards, 6 TD; Tony Lippett, 44 rec, 613 yards, 2 TD
Kicking- Michael Geiger, 36/38 XP, 15/16 FG, long 49
Sacks- Shilique Calhoun, DE, 7.5; Denicos Allen, OLB, 5.5
INTs- Darqueze Dennard/Kurtis Drummond, 4