2013 was a tough act to follow for Michigan State. 13 wins, conference title, trip to and victory in the Promised Land of Pasadena in the last Rose Bowl before the playoff forever changed the game's meaning. However, riding the wave of respect a breakthrough season generated and without a clear-cut national title favorite, the sky was the limit for MSU. How'd they do?
Preseason and Non-Con:
As is often the case following breakthrough college sports seasons, many of the players most responsible for it would be gone come the next season. The defense, in particular, had 6 standout starters and a few vital reserves, now immortalized by the Rose Bowl run, to replace. Still, much-lauded DC Pat Narduzzi opted to reenlist, most of the reserves had enough experience to engender some confidence in their ability, and the lion's share of an offense that went from bad to decent to pretty good over the course of 2013 was coming back, too.
The opening-week trampling of FCS Jacksonville State wasn't especially informative, as those games never are. But the following week's trip to Autzen would prove to be most illuminating, and not in the best way.
I'd try to make excuses. I'd point out that Oregon does what they did to MSU to pretty much every team they play. That Marcus Mariota is clearly some kind of Terminator warlock who peers into the MLB's mind and then takes the snap and casually does whatever will harm the defense most. But for the first 2 1/2 quarters, it felt like we had them. As we know, however, they call them quarters because there are 4, and, setting a trend they would struggle to shake for much of the year, MSU sure as hell forgot about one of those quarters.
I still maintain the game was closer than the score indicated (and that some of you people are far too cavalier with the term 'blowout', which this game really wasn't), but points scored in garbage time show up on the stat sheet nonetheless. With a loss so early in the season, MSU fell into the background of the playoff picture, and expectations generally slid down to the conference picture, especially with the drubbing the B1G as a whole endured on that dark day.
The other two tomato cans that composed the non-con schedule, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming, were both over by the end of the first quarter. I do, however, have to walk back what I said about these sacrificial games never teaching us anything, because up to this point in Mark Dantonio's tenure, we never saw point totals like what MSU put up in these games. Connor Cook looked brilliant, Tony Lippett had evolved into a true #1 WR, and the offensive line opened Wisconsin-like holes for the running backs. Level of competition disclaimers applied, but the offense showed a potency that no MSU squads ever had before.
Conference Season, Part I: A Couple Of Heart Attacks, A Couple Of Tramplings
Looking back through a season schedule can be a very informative exercise. For instance, people saying in the run-up to the Cotton Bowl that MSU was overrated because they hadn't beaten any good teams forget that in early October, Nebraska was sitting at 5-0, getting CFP discussion, and boasted a healthy Heisman contender in Ameer Abdullah. Box scores can also be misleading; the 27-22 MSU win indicates a pretty even game. Which is not what happened. For 3 quarters, MSU dominated despite a bad day from Cook. In the 4th, Nebraska flipped the script to such a degree that they almost undid the previous 45 minutes of play.
The Purdue game felt a bit different. MSU scored at will, but Darell Hazell, for some reason, had an excellent offensive game plan, and the Boilers played what might have been the best game of their season to make it uncomfortably close before a last-minute pick-six widened the margin. I'll mention, here, how good national respect can feel. When this game ended, the discussion was more about how Purdue must have dramatically improved if they were able to hang with MSU. In the past, that talk would have been about the Spartans' flat performance.
Indiana...what is there to say, really? Nate Sudfeld was already hurt. Tevin Coleman and Shane Wynn had a couple of big runs to keep it interesting for a little while, but that fizzled when the pilot episode of Zander Diamont's career couldn't score on literally every possession to keep up with the horrendous Hoosier defense.
And as for Michigan...another sign that times have changed. Looking over the schedule, this was at best the 5th most important game on the schedule (OSU, Oregon, Nebraska, Baylor). Some of that is probably due to the shabbiness of Michigan's team. It took a goofy pregame stunt by Michigan's players to generate any zest at all, and even that felt forced in both directions. The game was a formality, and the disparity between the programs once again proved cavernous. When Michigan managed a garbage-time touchdown (its first against MSU since 2011) against backups and 3rd stringers in the 4th quarter, MSU's band played the most sarcastic rendition of Hail to the Victors I've ever heard. Seriously, until that day I didn't know you brass instruments could be played sarcastically.
Conference Season, Part II: The Barretting and Beyond
One thing MSU's romp over Michigan guaranteed was a high-profile, primetime matchup with a resurgent OSU squad in a functional B1G East title match. Unfortunately for MSU, this game went little better than the team's first performance under a national spotlight. Once again, the defense wilted before a lethally effective dual-threat QB with enough supporting weaponry to stretch the field in all dimensions. The offense did fairly well to keep it respectable, but having witnessed this one personally, Barrett made probably 95% of his reads correctly and, even when the coverage was near-perfect, he beat it anyway. Sometimes, there's little choice but to grit one's teeth and acknowledge a sound beating.
Though the OSU loss was deflating and put MSU's loftiest preseason goals functionally out of reach, the team rebounded impressively against Maryland. The defense in particular found its pride, holding Maryland to 6 rushing yards, 11 total yards in the first quarter, and intercepting CJ Brown 3 times to seal the win in front of a large contingent of Beltway Spartans.
Maryland's defense played well enough to ensure the game was still a contest at halftime. Rutgers...did not. On Senior Day, perhaps the most interesting thing about the game was Tony Lippett reprising his freshman position by starting at CB...in addition to playing WR. He didn't apparently wear down, picking up 5 catches for 72 yards and a score as well as breaking up 2 passes when Gary Nova decided to test his coverage ability. Rutgers managed the same outcome against MSU (a 45-3 drubbing) that FCS Jacksonville State did in the opening week.
The final game of the regular season featured a trip to a Penn State team with a complete talent imbalance- an allegedly salty defense paired with a bumbling offense. PSU struggled so badly to move the ball that the game felt all but over from the opening kickoff, which RJ Shelton ran all the way back for MSU. The Nittany Lions managed just 233 yards of total offense and were totally bad sports about it by saying they didn't care about the Land Grant Trophy anyway, which. First, is a bald-faced lie. And second, pfffttt. You're never going to get it back anyway so good luck decommissioning it.
Bowl Game: Cotton Picking
10 regular-season wins is an objectively good season. It's a season most teams would gladly accept, especially when it involves keeping all 3 trophies you play for and a top-10 ranking. And yet...there really was no signature moment, no "program win," as Dantonio was fond of saying in his first few seasons in East Lansing. The two big opportunities had both been squandered; down years for Michigan and Penn State depressed the value of those wins; Nebraska spiraled into such dysfunction that everyone forgot they're still a pretty good team; the quality of the conference at large was so uniformly dismissed that it was hard to care about the rest of the schedule much.
And, following the PSU game, it seemed that the bowl matchup wouldn't offer much of a shot at redemption. The projection from nearly all sources was the Orange Bowl against ACC runner-up Georgia Tech. The Jackets are quite good, to be sure, and if there were any doubts, they ended those by running over Mississippi State. But, fairly or not, they don't carry the name cache of the other available matchups, and few in the Spartan fanbase felt Georgia Tech would offer a chance to boost MSU's perception.
Leave it to the committee to work its magic. For an unclear (read: Delany nudged the committee) reason, Mississippi State and Michigan State switched spots in the bracket-setting CFP poll from 8 and 7, respectively, despite the fact that both teams had been idle. That was lost in the furor over Baylor and TCU being left out, but it ensured that MSU would not go to the Orange Bowl, but instead to the Cotton Bowl (it also ensured that the B1G kept its Citrus Bowl spot and was able to slot all of its bowl eligible teams, hence my belief that Big Jim may have pulled a few strings). The matchup? Near-local outfit Baylor, which had just received the dubious honor of being the first-ever First Team Out of the CFP. And...boy, were they not happy about that. Understandably so, but playing the "I Thought This Was 'Murica" card over getting left out of the playoff? C'mon, man.
Come game time, it didn't take long for the same bubbling feeling of blowing a big opportunity to boil up; despite scoring a quick touchdown, MSU couldn't slow down Baylor's light-speed offense and deep, talented group of receivers, who alternated between catching bombs and taking Bryce Petty's quick, short passes for long gains. About the best that could be said for the first three quarters was that MSU kept the game within reach.
Strangely enough, the turning point seemed to be when Baylor reserve guard LaQuan McGowan (at a lithe 390 pounds) checked in as an eligible receiver and caught a touchdown to put Baylor up 20. After that, the Bears visibly relaxed and their total inability to move the ball on the ground against the Spartan defense caught up to them. Baylor's lack of a run game lengthened the 4th quarter, MSU scored the next two touchdowns, and then, lining up for a field goal to push their lead back to two scores, Baylor's poor kicker had this happen to him.
It's one thing to have a field goal blocked; to have it run back into a position where the opponent can take the lead in the closing seconds and find yourself on the receiving end of this year's Jadeveon Clowney clip, all in the same play? That's rough. Marcus Rush, having spent his whole career as a soft-spoken, largely unnoticed player, put his stamp on his senior season and breathed life back into his team.
From there, the ending was essentially written before it happened. Connor Cook marched the Spartans down the field and hit Keith Mumphrey for the go-ahead touchdown with 17 seconds left. On Baylor's ensuing possession, Lawrence Thomas sacked Petty on first down, Marcus Rush and Riley Bullough sacked him again on second down, and then Bullough picked Petty off with 2 seconds left to end then game.
There were other entertaining and dramatic bowls this season; the Outback, the Fiesta, the Pinstripe, the Bahamas, the Sugar. But a 20-point 4th quarter comeback, complete with a blocked field goal and last-minute game-winning score, is hard to top. The third time was the charm for a very good MSU team in search of its big moment.
In 2015, MSU should be OSU's top contender for conference alpha dog. The offense returns either 6 or 7 starters, depending on how you count OL Connor Kruse, but most crucial among them is Connor Cook, who passed on the NFL draft and will be a third-year starter at QB. The offensive line should also be an elite group with Jack Conklin back at left tackle and Jack Allen at center. MSU will need to identify new playmakers with its top two receivers (Lippett and Mumphrey) and top two tailbacks (Langford and Nick Hill) all graduating, but there are plenty of interesting options, particularly in the backfield where junior-to-be Delton Williams and a few young challengers will vie for the hundreds of available carries. The top offseason priority on offense will be finding new go-to receivers on the outside.
Defensively, MSU returns 7 starters, though there's an asterisk there as well since CB Darian Hicks was benched down the stretch. The defense also loses Broyles Award winner Pat Narduzzi, who finally found a head coaching gig worth taking at Pitt. Bolstered by Shilique Calhoun's decision to return for his senior year, the defensive line figures to be the strength of the defense, featuring four 5th-year seniors and a wave of young talent coming off of redshirts. Other than Ed Davis being written in pen at the WiLL, the linebacking corps will be in flux, but returns most of its contributors. It's no secret that the secondary is the defense's top concern, as a vulnerable group loses its two best players in Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond. If a viable secondary can be sorted out from the many promising candidates, the defense should fare better against high-powered offenses than in 2014.