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For The Win

Football games are long and complex enough that it's usually hard to say a single play determines a game, but let's be real, sometimes that's exactly the case. The coaches' decisions at those moments are often the difference between winning and losing.

I tell you, coming up with the trick play names is the best part of this job.
I tell you, coming up with the trick play names is the best part of this job.
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

In the run-up to last Saturday's game, the Michigan State fanbase was wrought with anxiety, myself most certainly included. The team had had a bye week to stew over a close loss to Notre Dame, a game in which the Spartans outplayed the Irish in pretty much every aspect of the game except the one that matters- the final score. The offense was once again punchless for most of the day, as it had been the majority of the past season and a third. Some in the MSU footballosphere went as far as to call it the most important game of the Dantonio era.

I hesitated to go quite that far, since this is a team that's been to the conference championship game and I considered a potential trip to Pasadena a smidge more important than a conference season opener. But I agreed with the general sentiment that if the offense was ever going to get on track enough to put together a good season, it would likely be now or never, and that if it didn't, the discontent in the fanbase would reach its highest level since John L. Smith was slapping himself up and down the sidelines. As an aside, I did predict that we'd lose this game, which highlights one of the benefits of pessimism in sports fandom- you are sure to either be right, or to be happy. Glass half full kind of thing, you know?

You need only glance at the box score from Saturday to know that things are feeling quite a bit more copacetic in Spartan nation now. 26 points isn't a breakout by any means, but Iowa has a solid defense, it was just the third start of Connor Cook's career, and the offense did enough, looking generally competent in all respects. That, after all, is all we've really been pining for- an offense good enough to let this defense win us a bunch of games.

It's probably because of the lights-out second half play of that defense, but there was a point in the game where the score felt a lot more lopsided than it was. Still, as standout commentator Beth Mowins pointed out in the 4th quarter, all Iowa had to do was score a touchdown and recover an onside kick, and then it was a game (Joey Galloway's reaction was priceless and whosoever can find it on YouTube shall have a handsome reward). The technical truth of that statement notwithstanding, I, and most likely the large majority of people watching, knew the game was already over, and had in fact ended with this play (sorry about the angle):

Michigan State's Mike Sadler Fake Punt vs Iowa (via Kohl's Kicking Camps)

As you can kind of tell in the video, MSU is "punting" from about its own 40 yard line here. Although Iowa's been burned by fake punts several times in recent years, they aren't really covering for the fake much at all, sending only two rushers and trying to set up the return instead. As a result, Mike Sadler had a convoy of blockers in front of him without much to do, and he easily scampers for about 25 yards. MSU was held to a field goal on that drive, but it may as well have been worth 30 points for the momentum inertia it created.

The thing that drove me nuts most about last year's team was the intensely conservative style Dantonio adopted. When the chips were down and he had a choice to play it safe or go for the win, you knew what was coming before it happened. It was partly understandable because the offense was so bad that every game was played on a razor's edge, but in each of several close losses, it felt like the staff was playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.

This isn't to say he should go full Chip Kelly, and discard the extra point from the playbook in favor of always going for two. But, about a case study? Let's say you're up 3 points on Nebraska with only a couple of minutes left in the game. You have the ball, and are getting darn close to field goal range, when whoops, up comes 4th down. The line of scrimmage? Nebraska's 38. As I recall (and my melancholic rage after that game may have clouded my memory), you needed about 3 yards to get the first against a decent but not great front. You have Le'Veon Freaking Bell, who is like a yards alchemist in that he can make something out of nothing.

You play it safe, play for field position, and punt. And...the punt goes into the end zone. The net result of the play is to give Nebraska the ball 18 yards further back than they would have had it if you had gone for it and didn't get an inch. 18 yards, by the way, which Nebraska regained on the very first play of their possession, at the cost of about 8 seconds of clock. And the rest is history: Taylor Martinez had just enough time to march down the field and toss the winning score.

OK, I'm done reliving that and have now crawled out from beneath my desk where I huddled in the fetal position for a few hours minutes. The point of dredging that memory out of my Repressed Memories Vault, where it was safely hanging out with most of middle school, is that a lot of the time, what appears to be the safe call really doesn't get you anything. The 38 yard line is too close to punt and reasonably expect to down it inside the 5, which is the admirable intent here. One more first down would have put the game away. But instead, the staff opted to see if Nebraska could win the game (they did) instead of trusting their own team to win it themselves.

When you constantly play close games, as these still-offensively-challenged Spartans likely will the rest of this season, one big play can absolutely make the difference- in either direction. I sincerely believe that if MSU hadn't punted against Nebraska last year, they win that game. I also believe that Hey Diddle Diddle (the honest-to-God name Dantonio said they call this play) put Saturday's game firmly in the win column, just like Mousetrap and Little Giants before it.

Of course, you can't call these plays very often. There's usually substantial risk involved. But a team with MSU's makeup, which is likely to be in a lot of close games, needs every little advantage it can get. And I've now seen enough from Dantonio this season to make me hopeful that he's back to the 2010 and 2011 version of himself, the version that trusted his guys to do what needed to be done- the version that won 11 games in each of those seasons. And no, I don't expect us to do that this year. But it's a helluva lot easier to get behind a team that goes for it when a chance to win presents itself, instead of going into its shell.

Sticking with Cook for real this time, burning Delton Williams' redshirt to ice the game, and the fake punt all tell me that Dantonio's ready to put more on the line this year. If, against any given opponent, it turns out to not be enough, so be it. Because sports movies aren't made about the team that punted from the 38, got the fortuitous bounce, and then held on to preserve the win, and there's a simple reason for that: it doesn't inspire the heart the way sports are supposed to. Hey Diddle Diddle does.