EAST LANSING — One more. Just one more. That was the heartbeat of every rain-soaked fan in this stadium Saturday, when the Michigan State offense hunkered down against Iowa within spitting distance of the goal line with 92 seconds left. “One more!” All afternoon, the rays of glory had been busting through the white mist sky, granting the Spartans yet another big play, yet another score, yet another blocked kick or timely penalty.
So now they trailed by only a field goal and they were on the Iowa 3, three yards from the year’s first Big Ten victory. And everyone — from quarterback Dave Yarema to coach George Perles to the fan who had painted his skin green and white — was breathing hard and thinking the same delirious thought.
“Were you ever less than 100 percent sure you would score?” someone would ask Yarema, who took the snap on that play and rolled out to pass.
“Never,” he said.
Why should he be? Everything to that point had been painted in destiny’s colors. What the hell was MSU still doing in this game anyhow? The Spartans had one of the worst third quarters imaginable, two punts, one interception, an offensive total of minus-four yards — and that was with Lorenzo White, their Heisman hopeful, still running the ball. By the time they reached the nerve-jangling finish, White wasn’t even on the field. He was in the locker room with a sprained knee.
MSU trailed, 24-21. Three yards away.
“One more,” everyone silently chanted.
Yarema brought his arm back for the pass . . . Suddenly, silence Well, by now, of course, you know the result. The ball was thrown on the run, thrown weakly, and it fluttered into the end zone to the wrong hands, an interception, and the thundering crowd noise that roused MSU simply stopped, the way a ghastly silence follows a midnight car crash.
“I thought when I threw it we were going to win the game,” Yarema said afterward, his hair damp from a long shower, his voice laced with both impatience and regret. “If not I wouldn’t have thrown it.”
“Did you think about running it in, or taking a sack, or running out of bounds, or . . . “
“I thought about a lot of things,” Yarema said.
Yes, the pass looked bad. It looked foolish. Perles claimed the Iowa defensive man came up and made a great play. Yarema said the same thing. But the defensive man himself, Ken Sims, was grinning ear to ear outside the locker room afterward. “He threw it right to me,” Sims said.
Whatever. It was not a good call, not with that much time (1:32) left. But if Yarema had not shown that kind of stick- it-in-their-ear guts all afternoon, the Spartans never would have been on the 3, either.
Remember that White, normally the linchpin of the Spartans’ offense, had a weak day, gaining just 41 yards. Remember that all three MSU touchdowns were from Yarema to Mark Ingram, who simply outran the defenders to his quarterback’s beautifully thrown tosses. Take away any of those, and this wasn’t even a contest.
A fourth-quarter MSU roughing-the-kicker penalty could just as easily be blamed. Or a missed field goal by Chris Caudell. Or a fumbled kickoff by freshman James Moore, which Iowa turned into a quick touchdown.
But people remember what they saw last, and what they saw last, while they were praying for one more miracle, was that one mistaken pass. And that is Yarema’s heartache this morning.
“I know what’s coming,” he said. “That’s the play everyone will remember. It’s sad. One play away from being a hero. And instead . . .”
He shrugged. No pushover So Michigan State drops its first Big Ten game, and next Saturday’s showdown with Michigan diminishes from earth-shattering to just plain delirious. But remember, Iowa was ranked higher than MSU coming in here. And the Hawkeyes very nearly lost. True, Iowa played without its star quarterback. But, as Perles put it, “our game plan wouldn’t have changed.”
This was the kind of game that can be debated forever. “If this happens, then this. . . . If not this, then that.” The Spartans may have been all of lucky, brilliant and careless. But their comeback from 10 points down with 6:45 to go cannot be dismissed as a failure.
“The fans got their money’s worth,” said Perles afterward, “TV got its money’s worth, you guys in the press got your money’s worth . . . “
He sighed. “I got my money’s worth.”
It bought him everything but the right finish. Outside the rain continued, and splashed the empty bleachers in a sadly rhythmic way. “One short,” it seemed to beat.
One lousy miracle short.