October 14, 2012

DotComp: Okay, where do you hurt?

EAST LANSING - The reason this one hurts so bad this morning is because it's the first loss of its kind of the Dantonio era. Yet it's a familiar pain. And some are concerned that there will be many more to come.

Don't be concerned. As long as Michigan State continues to play the brand of defense that worked for 95 percent of the downs in this game against Iowa, as long as the Spartans continue the progress they showed in the run blocking game against Iowa, then I think the Spartans will carve out a level of respectability in the remainder of 2012, and get back to championship contention in 2013. The puddles around the field at Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon might suggest otherwise, but this program is not taking on water.

There might not be enough wins left on the schedule this year to salvage the preseason goals of making it to Pasadena. And I trust that many of you are already conceding that this is a cycle-down year for Michigan State.

It didn't have to be a cycle-down year. Not if the new wide receivers had started the year in mid-season form. And if the new quarterback had been closer to perfect with some of his basic intermediate reads. These developmental pains are all part of the cycling process, but there was an assumption that defense and the running game would steady things while the other aspects matured.

The injuries to offensive linemen, including the tight end ... that stuff wasn't supposed to be part of the script. But this team simply hasn't been good enough to overcome those offensive line injuries and the delayed development in the passing game. And the defense has been selectively shaky.

Overall, the defense remains quite good. It's the best in the Big Ten. But there were uncharacteristic errors in gap integrity during key late-game drives by Ohio State and Notre Dame at winning time. Coaches railed on the players about it. Players vowed that they would stay more disciplined on defense, do their individual jobs, and not leave their gaps to try to cover for someone else. They seem like they mean it. Defense was excellent for most of Saturday. They've been assignment sound for the better part of eight quarters, even with last week's flag-aided first-half scoring binge by the Hoosiers.

However, in this game, there were two long runs by Iowa RB Mark Weisman. One keyed an Iowa field goal drive. The other fueled the Hawkeyes' game-tying drive. Neither were against MSU's base scheme.

The second one, which went for 37 yards and changed the game and possibly the season for Michigan State, came against rare man-to-man coverage. The Spartan defense was in "two-man" (two deep safeties/man-to-man underneath) on Weisman's 37-yard run on third-and-six, to the MSU 8-yard line. Michigan State MIGHT run that defense once a game; probably no more than 20 times a year.

MSU tried to change it up and botch whatever route combinations Iowa had called against the Spartans' base zone defense.

But MSU botched themselves by straying from its base. Some of the Spartans knew it when they came to the line of scrimmage against an Iowa offensive formation that was built to execute an outside zone run.

People will be talking today about the failed field goal fire drill at the end of the first half.

They'll talk about play calling. Some will say Michigan State should have passed more, should have passed farther downfield. Some will say MSU should have run the ball more.

They'll talk about a tipped pass that led to an interception in the second overtime. They'll talk about the interception that Darqueze Dennard could have made just moments earlier.

All of those criticisms and questions have merit. But for me, I saw a Michigan State team play championship defense for about 68 snaps. But they let it get away from them on this 37-yard run. And they let it happen by straying from what they are, which is a physical, zone-based team that aims to stop the run, and limit big plays in the process.

I'm not dwelling on the idea that they lost this game due to a defensive call. I'm dwelling on the belief that MSU will take with them, in games that lay ahead, a defense that is still capable of shutting down anyone in the Big Ten on most days. And that's enough to win most days.

It's a very good defense, even a championship defense in this league. It is not a great defense. Pass defense has sprung more leaks int he first half of this season than it did all last year. Some of them seemed like isolated incidents for a while, but they have been happening too frequently to be dismissed as flukes. We might become resigned to expecting MSU to allow at least one big one per week. But these are proven players and I think they can make the corrections.

The part that I don't think will get corrected is the pass rush problem. And yes after failing to get to Iowa's pocket-passing quarterback, the pass rush can hereby be declared a disappointment.

People can complain about play calling and not passing the ball past the chains and all that funny paper stuff, but here's the deal: Michigan State is not getting enough pressure with its standard front four. William Gholston heated up the QB as part of the first-quarter interception, which set up MSU's only touchdown. Aside from that, the front four was cold with the pass rush. MSU had to send linebacker to pressure the pocket.

If the Spartans WERE getting consistent pressure from the front four THEN Michigan State probably wouldn't have been as inclined to go with the two-man change-up on the last drive, or come again with the inside linebacker blitz on the earlier break-out run play.

Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is kicking himself for stepping out of the ordinary and calling for the change-up defense.

"I probably should've made a different call," he said. "I probably should've kept our base on the field and stopped the run because they do have a tendency to run the ball (on third-and-medium) so put that on me."

Man-to-man defense is a good way to lock up receivers, especially if it is a surprise tactic. But if a play gets loose against man-to-man, the safety net is a thin one, and the results can be costly.

It's not like the defense was inherently unsound. It's just not what Michigan State does best. And they left themselves susceptible to the type of big play that they normally don't allow.

"We tried to get out of it," Dantonio said. "Our front did get out of it, orbited out of it. But our secondary did not get out of it, did not make the check to get out of it."

The changeover included some changed gap responsibilities. From field level, Narduzzi wasn't sure after the game if the play-side defensive end operated with the assigned leverage. Hence the pitfalls of coming out of your base.

Part of what makes MSU good on defense is having the ability to change the pictures, make quick alterations, thanks to having a brainiac middle linebacker like Max Bullough. But sometimes the changes, and change-backs, require too much communication in to little time, and the outfit gets compromised.

Dantonio might have thought about calling time out. But after what happened at the end of the first half due to a shortage of time outs, he was probably a bit shy.

"So they (the safeties) were playing deep-half, which (some) people play," Dantonio said. "You still shouldn't get a 30-yard run. It sort of breaks the perimeter and it should be about a 7-yard run. But we miss a tackle on it (by Denicos Allen), and he gets to the edge and he's tough to bring down."

It changed everything. It set up the game-tying touchdown in the final minute. It forced overtime. It was the main domino that eventually resulted with Michigan State losing its third home game of the year and falling to 4-3. And this loss might be the one that sends the season into a death spiral.

Prior to that single 37-yard run, the Spartans had allowed just six points through 57 minutes of football. The defense was excellent.

But today, we will be criticizing the defense for "failing yet again to get off the field when the game was on the line."

That statement is true. They did fail to get off the field. But to me, it wasn't the real, representative, base-scheme Michigan State defense which was beaten on this play, or in this game. Don't blame the defense. The defense was good. And it will stay good. And this will keep Michigan State competitive every week, while the offense continues to improve - and it will improve.

I know, I know. You're not interested in improvement. You want wins, championships. That's what you're accustomed to. I can't help you with that, other than to pass along knowledge that some championship programs do in fact cycle down once in a while.

Here at Michigan State, we can choose to believe that this is a cycle-down year for what is still a championship program. Or you can fear that the tide of Muddy Waters is rolling back across the banks of the Red Cedar.

Many of us have been bruised by the Bobby Williams years, the John L. Smith follies, and the bad memories of Waters, Stolz and even Perles. We're like recession babies, forever worried that trouble times are just around the corner.

I don't dispute that 2012 may turn out to be a cyclical recession for Spartan football, maybe even as bad as 2009. But as long as the defense remains planted, and as long as the Spartans remain as committed to win collisions on both sides of the ball as they have been in these losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Notre Dame, then the wins will sprout up again. It's a brand, it's an ethic. If they remain together, they will remain tough to beat, every Saturday.

And if the quarterback gets back to positive development, once we return to dryland football, and if the receivers continue to show improved dependability, and Aaron Burbridge continues to look like a difference-maker at split end, then this team will rise up with an unexpected win. And they may even win a game they shouldn't win at some point. That's with or without Dion Sims, their best pass catcher and the sixth man of the offensive line.

It likely won't add up to Pasadena for MSU in 2012. But I believe there is still a good team in there somewhere, and we should remember the way we viewed things five years ago when we unanimously would have welcomed an 8-4 season and a victory over Michigan. Both are still within grasp. And half of what MSU did against Iowa on Saturday - namely defense, and an established ground game - are precisely the first two steps toward a winning formula next week.

Is that too much sunshine for you? Sorry to disappoint. That's just the way I see it.

Here's The Root of the Pain

Michigan State has suffered a few stinging losses during the six-plus years of Mark Dantonio's tenure with the Spartans. But there haven't been many losses to teams that were perceived to be inferior opponents. And those losses haven't come during a season which began with such high expectation.

Michigan State entered this season with its highest preseason ranking since 1979. And now the Spartans begin the second half of the season looking much different than the trophy-toting teams of the past two years, and more like some of the disappointing Michigan State teams of the past.

One difference is that the players of this year's team had nothing to do with past MSU ills. They'll be asked about past Spartan disappointments, but the only disappointments they know are of the last-second loss to Wisconsin for a chance to go to the Rose Bowl last year, a pair of losses to unbeaten Ohio State and Notre Dame this year, and now this clunker against Iowa.

And now they'll need to teach themselves how to get up and move on - because few players in this program have ever faced .500 before.

This might seem like a familiar, same old problem for Spartan fans, and some media who cover Michigan State. But it's a brand new predicament for the 18 non-senior starters on this team (there would be 19 underclassman starters if Travis Jackson were healthy).

In addition to improving his ability to recognize open receivers on rare occasions when some of them are open, Andrew Maxwell, must also try to be a leader. As a junior captain. In this unfamiliar time of crisis.

"It's going to build the character of this team," Maxwell said, offering a good answer, but really just guessing and not quite speaking from experience. "We have shown that we can battle back and we have shown that we can come together as a team, and that's the most important thing, to lean on one another."

The other captain, senior linebacker Chris Norman, lost his starting job this week. He's being out-performed by sophomore Taiwan Jones.

Norman is still a good player. But his career has been hindered by injuries. It looks like he is playing with the knowledge that he only has so many collisions left. He might not have much more to give. And when he is on the field these days, he seems to make uncharacteristic mistakes - such as his error in allowing an H-back to come open for a sizeable gain on Saturday. He quickly was hooked back to the bench after that one.

With Maxwell struggling, and Norman no longer in the starting lineup, who is going to lead?

Notice that Michigan State rarely, RARELY takes injured players on the road with them. But the Spartans took injured offensive tackle Fou Fonoti to Indiana last week. What does that tell you? It means that they are low on speakers, talkers, galvanizers.

It's a playing group full of juniors and sophomores.

Juniors and sophomores usually have trouble telling seniors what to do. They have trouble speaking for an entire group.

Kirk Cousins did it as a junior. He was a rare character, one of the best leaders in program history.

With the graduations of Cousins, Trenton Robinson, and Joel Foreman, there has been a leadership vacuum.

It's not the main problem with this team. It's not an excuse. It's simply one of the causes of the cycle-down year.

About The Leg Whip

Okay, let's get something straight. I rarely, rarely complain about officiating. Bad calls, or bad non-calls are like bad bounces. They are part of the game and they are almost never part of a grand conspiracy against your team.

But in the case of this Michigan State-Iowa game, THE game-tying touchdown was scored directly due to a deliberate, dirty, foul of a play by the Hawkeyes.

When Weisman walked into the end zone with a 5-yard TD run on third-and-goal, you might have been surprised by the lack of resistance he met. It's not like Michigan State to allow someone to just walk into the end zone, straight up the middle like that, right? That's so John L era.

And you're right. It's not like the current MSU defense to allow it. Yet there is a reason the line of scrimmage parted the way it did.

MSU's Denicos Allen was assigned to the gap through which Weisman ran. Allen was there, head-up, ready to break down and take on Weisman. He had the gap hosted. He was going to make the stop, or get run over. There was no room to go around him.

Just as Allen was getting ready to attempt the tackle, Iowa offensive guard Matt Tobin went to the ground, rolled and purposefully whipped out his top (left) leg to trip Allen. If you have it on DVR, go back and look at it. You'll be astonished. Tobin didn't execute the leg whip on a whim after being knocked to the ground. No, no. He WENT to the ground on purpose. It looked to me like he was assigned to execute the leg whip, like he was coached to do so.

After the game, I asked Narduzzi if he saw the leg whip.

"No," Narduzzi said. "But it wouldn't surprise me."

Hey, I don't to get all Eddie Brown about this thing. If the penalty had been called and the TD disallowed and Iowa had been marched back 15 yards for third-and-goal from the 20, maybe the Hawkeyes still would have tied the game.

I'm just disappointed that Iowa would teach such a dangerous, underhanded means of blocking. I'll accept no other alibis. That maneuver was TAUGHT and assigned. Forget green and white and wins and losses, I'm just speaking up on behalf of the sport, here.

After the leg whip, Allen was on the ground in pain. If this were the NFL, Tobin would probably be facing a $20,000 fine.

Allen acknowledged the foul, but didn't use it as an excuse.

"I got a little leg whip on it and I couldn't make the play," Allen said. "I kind of felt bad about that personally because I felt like I was in position to make the stop. I didn't so, that stands out to me that you have to finish plays like that no matter what."

Never heard Desmond Howard put it like that.

This is what should have happened. Allen should have been given a chance to make the tackle. I'm guessing he gets Weisman to the ground at about the 2-yard line. From there, we have a thrilling fourth-and-goal from the 2. McNutt anyone? Iowa still might have tied it and won anyway. I would prefer that they do it with some dignity.

Let's Talk About Roushar

Judging by the Tweets, and the emails I received, and the posts on the message board, the play calling and overall operation overseen by MSU offensive coordinator Dan Roushar is being roundly criticized by angry Spartan fans looking to pin the loss on someone or something.

Well, if the leg whip had been called, or if Dennard had secured the interception, I think today I would be writing about how Michigan State improved at the line of scrimmage against Iowa.

I'd be pointing out that the Spartans carved out a good, effective running game against the Big Ten's No. 3-ranked rushing defense.

I would detail how the use of a new I-formation/no tight end personnel group worked around Sims' absence while also presenting the Hawkeye defense with a package they hadn't seen on film. That was all Roushar. Brand new wrinkle. A subtle one, but it was probably worth about 60 yards rushing by itself, including the 14-yard TD which opened the scoring.

I'd be writing that the Spartans grew as an offensive front to the point that MSU can now go into Michigan Stadium feeling that they are making enough progress with the ground game to close in on a level of offensive balance that eluded them in the first half of the season.

Instead, I'm fielding questions and posts on the message board calling for Dan Roushar's dismissal.

Well, here's where I start on this:

There weren't a lot of open receivers. The field was slippery, the ball was slippery. Not good for running routes, not good for throwing and catching the ball.

Some say a slippery field is an advantage to the offense because the receivers know where they're going and the defenders do not. Well, that might be true when operating against man-to-man. But I think the edge shifts to the defense on a slippery field if they are playing zone.

MSU was leading on the scoreboard for about 59 minutes in this game. The Spartan defense was dominating. I think it would have been foolish to try to force the offensive issue.

If MSU had attacked and gone downfield more often, as some suggest, would MSU have scored another TD and gotten to 20 points? Or would MSU have thrown an interception and helped Iowa get to 20 points?

MSU's one TD was set up by an interception.
Iowa's victory was secured by an interception.

The game probably would have been decided much earlier if either team had thrown caution to the rain and tried to jazz up their offenses with too many downfield passes.

Iowa's pass defense was pretty good, especially downfield on first- and second-down. Just because Maxwell didn't throw the ball downfield doesn't mean that there was someone open that he didn't see.

On third downs, Iowa played a lot of press man-to-man. MSU went with shallow crossing routes short of first-down yardage on three occasions against this coverage. Once, MSU gained 38 yards on a short third-and-four pass to Burbridge. Once, MSU gained 15 yards on third-and-16 pass to Burbridge. Once, MSU gained 3 yards on third-and-four pass to Burbridge (which led to the fourth-and-one decision to punt at the 48-yard line. More on that later).

A lot of people get upset when they see a QB throw short of first-down yardage. I agree that there have been times this year when Maxwell's read should have taken him somewhere else, farther down the field. I saw that happen on a third-down sack in the second possession of this game.

But on the two third-down "failures" mentioned above, please note that the alternative would have been to hoist dangerous downfield passes into coverage with, I'd say, a 25 percent chance of an interception. Is that REALLY what you want to see, when your defense has allowed just 6 points during a rain-soaked defensive struggle?

In a situation such as this, I think it's best to err on the side of caution, throw the shallow crossing route which went for 38 yards earlier in the game, and see if you can get some YAC. Failing that, punting is not a bad thing (Jimmy Johnson, 1987).

I agree that MSU should aspire to score more than 13 points in 60 minutes. Maybe that one little decision to go for it on fourth-and-one at the 48 could have helped.

But Dantonio has won games at a rarely-precedented clip in the previous two seasons. He subscribes to certain brand of Tressel ball, of field position and defense when you indeed have the better defense. And that brand has treated him well, at various levels, for years.

Do you really need to open up the passing game and "attack" as some have suggested?

I don't know. I kind of think the offense should have been a bit more conservative at times.

I've heard arguments from both parties. MSU should have passed more. MSU should have run more. Everyone agrees that the Spartans should have scored more. But you can't assume and argue that the play that wasn't called is the one that would have worked.

Is it a disaster to score only 13 points in the rain against Iowa? Well, maybe 17 would be more like it. Please note that Iowa's defense is good. They haven't allowed more than 400 yards to any opponent this year. The Hawkeyes aren't as good as they were in Norm Parker's golden era. But they are pretty good. Pretty hard to run against. And their pass defense is much-improved since the Central Michigan game.

Central Michigan?

That's the crux of the humiliation, here. How can MSU lose to a team that lost to Central Michigan? How can MSU "come out flat" against a team that lost to the Chippewas? Did Dantonio see this coming?

"Did we talk about how good Iowa was? Absolutely," Dantonio said. "I knew they would play well on defense and I knew it would be a battle."

Look, everyone knows that Ohio State was terrible against California, and only a little bit better against UAB. Yet everyone allows and accepts the fact that Ohio State is greatly improved since then, and would destroy either of those teams if they played them again.

But if I suggested that Iowa, with a healthy Weisman, an improved offensive line and pass defense, would do the same to ISU or CMU in a rematch, you would laugh.

If Weisman doesn't miss any time with the ankle he tweaked late in this game, Iowa will play in a bowl game, and has a chance to win five or six straight.

Their defense is good. Rushing for
179 yards against that defensive front on a rainy day when you HAD to run smacks of some pretty good offensive development in the last couple of weeks.

Now, do I think Roushar is the greatest thing since Sid Gillman? No. Do I see anything in this game that suggests he's not fit for the job? No.

Do I think the offense needs to be more "imaginative"?

Hey, the best, state-of-the-art college football game played on Saturday was LSU vs. South Carolina. Go watch that game and tell me how imaginative the winning team was.

Is MSU unimaginative? Well, it's good to keep a defense off-balance with some things. But I think the bulk of MSU's imagination needs to be geared toward figuring out what the Spartans need to do in order to get back to being a balanced, conventional offense, back up to the level that we saw from MSU last year when the Spartans were good enough to be the best team in the Big Ten, with the possible exception of Wisconsin, which was equally "unimaginative."

MSU can run more bells and whistles on offense and act like Utah and bring back Dave Baldwin for some cartoons, and it might serve them well for one play, or one drive, or maybe even one game, but it's not going to sustain them for the long haul. MSU is not physical enough right now. THAT is what MSU needs to continue to work on. That is what they set out to achieve when they began building this program. They haven't gotten there yet. They may not get there this year. But that's the meat-and-potatoes style of play that is most conducive for a middleweight Midwestern recruiter like MSU to achieve a routine level of New Year's Day success (see Wisconsin's three Rose Bowl wins in the 1990s and Iowa's three Top 10 finishes in the 2000s).

MSU's offensive line has made surprising levels of improvement in the second half of the season pretty much in every year Dantonio has been in office. They need to keep at it, and try to do it again.

I'm not saying MSU has the talent at RB or offensive line to play conventional I-formation power football as well as LSU or Alabama. But MSU isn't bad enough in this area to retreat from their style of play of 2010 and 2011, and to abort what they set out to do in 2012.

In fact, I think I would have liked to have seen them pound the rock just one more time inside the 10-yard line during the field goal drive, and just one more time on second-and-six on MSU's second-to-last drive of the game, and one time on fourth-and-one at the 48-yard line.

The Fourth Down Decision

Dantonio has dazzled fans and rebuilt this program on bravado and daring. There is clear logic behind his decision to punt on fourth-and-one at the Iowa 48-yard line with 5:40 left in the third quarter and Michigan State up 10-3.

But in retrospect, if he is honest with himself, he will wonder what might have happened if the Spartans had gone for it, maintained possession inside the 45, with a chance to deliver something close to a knockout blow. Instead, MSU punted. That might be the correct, textbook call. But it also helped Iowa hang around.

When it was fourth-and-one, Chris McDonald and Skyler Burkland looked to the MSU sideline and pointed southward. They wanted to go for it. MSU sent the punt team out. Some Spartan fans booed. Dantonio heard them, and it bothered him.

It's not like Dantonio to get bothered by those type of things. At least it's not like him to show it, and to sound off about it at the post-game press conference. But he was bothered. And he sounded off.

"It's fourth down on the 48-yard line and you're getting booed for not going for it? I mean get real," Dantonio said, already irked by being asked why he kicked a field goal in the first half on fourth-and-one.

Kicking the field goal early in the game to go up 10-0 undoubtedly was the right call. It's shameful that he even had to answer a question about that decision.

The one in the third quarter was a bit tougher.

"You've got to play the position game," Dantonio said. "It's raining out there. It's cold. You have to play the game of field position. You have to hold them down there, get the ball back and do the deal. It's a defensive game at that point."

Yes it was. And MSU pinned Iowa back at their 14-yard line, with the Spartans ahead on all scorecards - yet leading by only one touchdown. And the defense finally buckled after that punt.

MSU allowed a 31-yard run to Iowa RB Mark Weisman on the first play of that drive. MSU came with a double inside linebacker blitz. It's a defensive pressure scheme which has been so successful for the Spartans over the past two or three years, including three pick-sixes in 2011 out of that look.

But Iowa popped off a zone run against it. Once the RB broke the line of scrimmage, the Spartans had no sideline-to-sideline pursuit from its linebackers. They were sucked in, blitzing.

The wrong call? Before the snap, no it wasn't.
Afterward, hindsight being 20/20, I'm sure they'll wish they had stuck to their base defense for the first play of that drive.

"You look at so many opportunities and you are going to watch the film as a coach or a player and you say, 'Uh. If you made that play here,'" Dantonio said. "You are going to find 15 or 20 opportunities like that in games like this."

He's suffered through painful film sessions like this in the past. But I've always been impressed by his ability to leave wounds behind him. We never used to see him sweat, back when he was building it. Now that he's trying to sustain it, and there is a decreasing level of appreciation from the bleachers, well, the collar can get hot.

I don't blame him for being bothered by boos. I am concerned that he's letting us know that it bothers him.

Or maybe he's doing the right thing. Tom Izzo lets us know when he's ticked off at the fans. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's good for Dantonio to stick up for himself and sound off.

I'm as inexperienced in this stuff as anybody. I've never covered a football team that has won major league trophies for two straight years and is trying to sustain excellence with a deep but young roster. I don't know all the answers. But we can trust that Dantonio will at least be himself.

He answered sharply and correctly when asked about the first-half field goal decision.

"I felt like we needed to take the field goal," Dantonio said. "It was a tough game with the rain and it was proving to be slippery out there, the field was getting pretty bad and it's tough to run vertical on it. We didn't know if seven points would be enough or four points, but there's no guarantee that we score if we did get the first down on that play. And I can tell you one thing, if we don't get the first down you would be asking me the same question on the other end. That early in the game you have to take points."

The first loss of its kind, in his era.

The first time he has had to explain such an easy decision after a loss.

But it wasn't the first time this year he has walked away from a loss feeling he had the better team.

"We still have a very good football team and we lose two very close games," he said. "When you lose in double overtime you're looking for a play here or a play there. They're there. You just have to make them. Same thing when you lose by one. You just have to make a play, or coach the play.

"It's tough to deal with and it's tough for our players and coaches and I'm sure a lot of people."

Dantonio subscribes to the general belief that a team isn't as good as it's perceived to be when it wins, and not as bad as people think when it loses.

When MSU won 11 games in 2010 and 2011, the Spartans truly might not have been as good as their record. But they had "it." What was "it?" Some of "it" was leadership. Some of "it" was belief.

MSU is trying to rebuild its leadership this year. They need to make sure they don't lose belief.

"The difference is inches, as always," Dantonio said. "You have the opportunity to make a pick on their last third down play (in the second overtime) and don't quite come up with it. Probably a good offensive play by them to knock it away from Darqueze (Dennard). But he has an opportunity to pick it. If we pick it, it's obviously a whole different scenario in overtime; obviously we would (then) try to run the ball and kick."

Instead MSU went to the air, had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage an intercepted.

MSU was planning to make a short drive, score a TD and win in the bottom of the second overtime. The defense had held in the top half of the second OT.

"As promising as things look, (snap) it's like that," Dantonio said. "It ends. And it's tough. When you're standing there with a microphone and everything, it's like, 'Wow.' When you're standing there doing it, it's very difficult to handle. You are sort of stunned."

This makes three home losses in 2012, after enjoying the longest home winning streak since the 1950s?

In some ways, this is the toughest regular season loss since losing to Central Michigan in 2009. That was a season that was derailed quickly, and ended up 6-7. Now, Michigan State has to make sure that the losses don't mount. MSU might not win the division, might not play in the Big Ten Championship, but the program needs to march forward, get to 8 or so wins and learn along the way, get improvement from the quarterback, try to salvage a successful season, and bring back the 19 returning starters, and work toward beating Michigan and anyone else they can in 2013.

And in the meantime, beat the Wolverines again in 2012, meaning next week.

You don't think it's possible? Let me tell you something. There is a group of people that will look at MSU's film, and see snippets of Le'Veon Bell doing extraordinary things, of Maxwell making plenty of remarkable plays, of a defense that is still better than any in the Big Ten, and of young receivers who are starting to deliver at key junctures. MSU has not yet had all of those cylinders hitting in the same game, but the capabilities are unquestioned. Few will give the Spartans a chance to win next week at Michigan. Wolverine players will be patted on the back all week, congratulated for beating the Spartans days before even taking the field. But there will be people who will look at film and know that Michigan State is more than capable of winning next Saturday. Those people are Michigan's coaches. And they're right.

"We have to make sure everybody stays together," Bell said. "We are still a good team. We are still trying to put things together. I will make sure guys don't hold their head down. I think guys are still confident, and getting more confident from the reps they are getting."

"Yeah, it's gut check time," Dantonio said. "It's a tough stretch, our schedule is a tough stretch. Our guys will rise to it. We will play hard next week. You can count on that. We'll play hard. We have to get our legs back up underneath us. We have to absorb this mentally and we have to push through it."

That includes ignoring the noise of the fans and media, coach. Unless, that is, you use the noise for positive energy.

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