EAST LANSING – The weather was perfect, the stadium was packed, and the whole town was pounding with green-and-white optimism.
And then the game started.
And Ohio State pulled the Spartans’ pants down.
Not ready. Not yet. The records suggested that Michigan State was an elite team, but records are just numbers. The field tells the tale. And on the field, there were the Big Boys and there were the Wannabes. Before this game was 15 minutes old, it told an age-old story about one team that has done it and one team that is still dreaming about it.
“What’s the one thing you did well today?” someone asked MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, after the 45-7 drubbing.
“I thought we did a good job in warm-ups,” he said.
Unfortunately, you missed those. What you saw was one team, on the road, that was more than ready for the big stage, and one team, at home, that was still in make-up.
Some of Saturday was bad breaks – like quarterback Kirk Cousins’ fumble that bounced up and sat on his rear end, until a Buckeye plucked it like an hors d’oeuvres and ran downfield for a touchdown.
But most of this embarrassing blowout was just better running, better blocking, better tackling and better playmaking by Ohio State. No one is saying the Spartans aren’t strong and talented. But there’s the matinee show. And then there’s prime time.
Not ready. Not yet.
A chance at the spotlight
“Not a very good game today,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “… We lost a great opportunity, I think, to make an impact on this country.”
I think he’s confusing football with the presidential debates. But I get his drift. This was a rare moment in Spartan Land, a chance for to steal Michigan’s thunder and make the upset of 12th-ranked Ohio State a red-letter date on East Lansing’s calendar.
But by sundown it was clear: These two teams are not on the same page. Despite matching 6-1 records, this was 20th-ranked MSU’s first true test against a national championship-level power. The results? Where there should have been concentration, there were turnovers. Where there should have adrenaline-fueled tackles, there were misses and flailing arms.
And where there should have been a better game plan, there was … nothing.
Ohio State knew exactly how to exploit the MSU defense, luring it in, running around it, throwing behind it. The Spartans, at times, looked completely suckered by play fakes and blocking schemes.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes had no trouble with the MSU offense, squelching Heisman Trophy hopeful Javon Ringer (67 yards) and daring senior quarterback Brian Hoyer to beat them.
Instead, Hoyer and the Spartans beat themselves. Hoyer’s inability to move the offense (27 yards passing) kept giving OSU fresh chances. A foolish fumble by freshman Keshawn Martin led to the Buckeyes’ second touchdown. OSU scored twice on plays that began with MSU snaps. Heck, the Buckeyes had 161 yards on fumble recoveries. That’s more than triple the MSU rushing attack!
And while the Spartans aren’t the only ones who have trouble tackling the elusive freshman sensation Terrelle Pryor, they sure didn’t set a gold standard Saturday. I lost count of how many MSU defenders had a chance to tackle Pryor in the open field. But they all had one thing in common.
They all missed.
No time to let up now
And now the Spartans must guard against their dreaded second-half-of-the-seasonitis. Plenty of MSU teams start out hot, and by November have cooled to mediocre. Should the Green and White lose next weekend to arch-rival Michigan, not only will the polish have come off this team, it will need a paint job.
“It’s a disappointing loss but not the end of the world,” Dantonio said. And he’s right on one level. Ohio State has been doing this a long time. They’ve played for national titles. Their talent level – from Pryor (116 yards passing, 72 rushing) to Beanie Wells (140 yards rushing) to linebacker James Laurinaitis (11 tackles, 1.5 sacks) – is All-America caliber. If you have to have your tail waxed by somebody, it might as well be the Buckeyes.
But the flip side is, if you ever want to win your conference, let alone a national title, you’re going to have to do better than 45-7 losses at home.
“We’ll find out what kind of people we are,” Dantonio said, referring to the rest of the season. I’m sure they’re good people. But as a team, they’re still heading up a mountain that currently has a Buckeyes flag at its peak. Coming. Climbing. But not there yet.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.