It is too bad I was not alive in the 1950s and 1960s to see a time when Michigan State football was a true powerhouse. Since then, well it has been mostly well, meh.
Being a fan of Michigan State football, you get used to starting many sentences with "if," especially in the last few decades.
"If the 1999 team doesn’t get rolled in consecutive weeks against Wisconsin and Purdue, they are playing for a national championship."
"If Isaiah Lewis doesn’t breathe on the Wisconsin punter in the Big Ten Championship game, MSU would have been in the Rose Bowl."
"If Drew Stanton doesn’t get hurt against Michigan in 2004, MSU would have won in the Big House and perhaps have gone on to achieve success under John L. Smith."
"If George Perles leaves for the NFL, does MSU football stay relevant and not get dragged into the sewer in the early 1990s?"
Okay, the part about success with JLS is pushing it a tad, but you get the point.
Such as the life of a MSU fan, to get inches away from success only to have it snatched away. I once told a relative attending a Michigan State game for the first time to expect anything. "If the Earth opens up at the 50-yard-line and swallows everyone and everything up, I want you to expect that," I remember telling the young lad that day.
Of course, we were about to walk into Spartan Stadium on one chilly afternoon in November 1998 and watch MSU give away a double-digit lead to Purdue in the waning moments of the game and lose. Watching MSU give away leads like this has happened many times, but the fact that it happened in consecutive years, to the same school in equally god-awful fashion, is well so MSU-like.
Oh yeah, this particular crushing loss came a week after the Spartans upset top-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, which featured a monster day by Julian Peterson. Speaking of "ifs," imagine if Peterson was at MSU for four seasons. What would those numbers have been?
In honor of MSU football, I write an article that includes a few more ifs.
I happened upon an old MSU media guide the other day. It was from 2001. This ended up being the year that MSU went 7-5, including wins against Michigan and a David Carr-led Fresno State team in one of the worst bowls ever conceived in the history of mankind, the Silicon Valley Classic or Silicon Valley Bowl. Whatev... It is long gone.
Combing through the pages, I come across some of the old Perles teams. Though not a huge fan of the man, I did appreciate his style of football. It was gritty, smash mouth, and ballsy football meant to be played mean and nasty. Of course, there was the Rose Bowl year, then the following year when MSU lost to Georgia in the Independence Bowl. Then I come across 1989.
This happened to be the year that featured Butkus Award and Lombardi Award winner Percy Snow and all of his green and white badassery. Congrats to Percy by the way on a well-deserved induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. It may not be a bad idea to celebrate his induction with a spot on the MSU Ring of Honor this season. He is after all one of only four defensive players to win both awards.
What is so special about that year? Well nothing really. MSU went 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten. They came in third in the league that year to Michigan and Illinois. It was Bo’s last season and John Mackovic made Illinois football relevant for half an hour. The "if" part with this season has to do with how MSU lost their four games and who they lost to. See back in the day, college football regular seasons used to be 11 games and they would include three non-conference games. This was long before ADs would line up eight home games on the schedule and patsy it up with an I-AA school and three bottom feeders.
In 1989, MSU ran the non-conference gauntlet, at least in my opinion they did. After playing Miami (Ohio), in consecutive weeks they played the Miami Hurricanes, who ended up winning that year’s national championship, and Notre Dame, who ended up winning 11 games and beating the Colorado Buffaloes in the Orange Bowl.
The Spartans lost both games, but not by much. The ND loss was by 8 and the Miami loss, at Spartan Stadium, was only by 6. Then the Big Ten schedule featured back-to-back weeks against Michigan and Illinois. Again, MSU loses both games, but only by 3 and 4 points respectively. Add it all up, MSU was competitive in every loss and was damn close to winning at least two of those games.
I can’t say I remember the Illinois game. I’m assuming Jeff George had something to do with the Illini winning. I do remember the Michigan game a little. Tripp Welbourne, the All-American safety, stuffed Blake Ezor at the goal line and the Wolverines escaped with a 10-7 win.
So what if Ezor shakes loose and gets into the end zone against Michigan? What if MSU ekes out another touchdown or two more John Langeloh field goals against the Fighting Illini? That is two Rose Bowls in three years, followed up by another Big Ten title in 1990, which included another bowl win.
It’s a stretch to say that MSU would have returned to its glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. Perles was drunk with power and he was steering this ship through rough waters and it would get worse. Maybe he would have left after 1990 and turned the program over to a capable assistant or an up-and-coming coach from a smaller school. Until the fall arrives, this is what kills time for college football fans. We’ll spend the summer talking about the ifs, buts, maybes, and all the imagined scenarios that could have turned around the fortunes of one program or led to the demise of another.
In the case of Michigan State football, the idea of the program returning to the glory days of the 50s and 60s seems far-fetched considering the level of competition that exists not just in the BIG, but also across the country. MSU won 22 games in two years and never went to Pasadena or any of the other BCS games. There were some ifs in those two seasons for sure. Even last year, which was likely the most frustrating season that I could ever recall, the team was only a few plays away from another double-digit win season.
Maybe this year, those losses from last year will become wins this year with improved quarterback play and better offensive play calling. If only.
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