STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Brian Hoyer heaved the pass downfield – then took a shot from a linebacker who I swear was fired from a cannon. Hoyer crumpled. He never saw the ball, which was just as well, since it was intercepted. He lay on his stomach, then buried his head in the ground.
And that pretty much summed up the day.
Third best. That’s where the marker falls. That’s where the Little Green Engine finally puttered out. Third best in the conference. No worse, but clearly no better. There’s Penn State, there’s Ohio State. And then there’s Michigan State. It’s nothing to be mad about. Considering where the Spartans have been, it’s actually good.
But if it doesn’t feel good, it’s because of the distance between No. 3 and those at the top. For now they are as close as Boston and Baghdad.
Oh, sure, Mark Dantonio’s well-rested group came into this snow-dusted valley hoping for an upset. MSU believed that somehow, if everything worked out, it could beat the 10-1 Nittany Lions and go to Pasadena as Big Ten champion.
But the odds were slim, and by kickoff, they already were dashed. No upsets Saturday. Football went by the chalk. Down in Columbus, Ohio State boxed in Michigan’s ears for the fifth straight year. (Can we still call it a rivalry if one team always wins?)
And here in Beaver Stadium, Joe Paterno’s team did what it has done since 1994 in this Big Ten rivalry – win at home.
“Obviously, we’re a ways away,” Dantonio said after the 49-18 drubbing.
Third best. An Unhappy Valley for MSU fans
Almost from the opening kick, Penn State slapped Michigan State around with a smothering defense and an uncatchable offense.
At the end of the first quarter, MSU had one first down.
By halftime, Penn State had seen four players reach the end zone.
By the end of the third quarter, Penn State had tattooed a 70-yard touchdown pass on the MSU defense, and its receivers were splitting seams more often than a fat man in tight pants
And 2 minutes into the fourth quarter, Penn State completed a 59-yard touchdown bomb -by the backup quarterback!
“When the stakes have been high we’re very excited to play, we get very focused ” Dantonio said, “but we just can’t seem to catch fire and play ourselves back into the football game.”
They were barely in it Saturday. Every time you glanced up, there was a Penn Stater breaking free from a gasping defender. But look. There was a reason MSU came in tied for the conference lead but was still a 15 1/2 -point underdog. Experts knew. The Spartans’ 9-2 record was a byproduct of not blowing games in a mediocre conference. No insult there. U-M can’t claim that.
But the only two Big Ten teams to warrant a real sniff from the national pollsters not only overwhelmed the Spartans, they pulled their pants down. The Buckeyes won a month ago, 45-7, in East Lansing.
And Saturday, Penn State, the Big Ten King, ran a clinic. It was embarrassing how easily the Lions stuffed Javon Ringer, MSU’s biggest star. And Paterno’s offensive linemen created such a perfect pocket around their quarterbacks, it could have been sewn by an Italian tailor.
Dantonio: “We’ve got two co-champions in this conference and we were beat up by both.” The rocky road to better times
Now, there is no shame in a 9-3 record. Last season – Dantonio’s first – his team finished 7-6. So he’s taking MSU in the right direction.
But now he must prove MSU can beat a great team, not just pretty good ones. The combined score of the OSU and PSU defeats was 94-25. You can’t call yourself an elite team if the closest you come to the best is a 31-point loss.
“We probably took two steps forward from last year,” Dantonio said, “but we took a step backward today.”
OK. A nod of admiration to Hoyer, Ringer and the other seniors, who made some great memories this season. The victory over U-M, the comeback against Wisconsin, Ringer’s 200-yard games – these were all high points.
And maybe, years from now, these seniors will view themselves as Michigan State’s bridge between average and great. But for now, the rest of the Spartans have to cross that bridge.
They can start by gunning for the top next year. And, unlike a third-best team, playing like they belong there.