SPARTANS GET ‘A’ FOR EFFORT,BUT THEY ALSO KNOW THE SCORE

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All afternoon, the only thing that hung in their way was the scoreboard. They were clobbering the national champions, hurting them, leaving them dizzy. Michigan State had Notre Dame breathless and confused; the Spartans had them every which way but beaten. The scoreboard. The damn scoreboard. If only they could pound that thing, tackle it, knock it silly until it coughed up some points the way the Fighting Irish had been coughing up the football.

No can do. “A” for effort. “L” for loss. Here was a remarkable performance by a team that lost its most potent offensive weapon, tailback Blake Ezor, before the first quarter was over, that threw its rookie quarterback, Dan Enos, into the fires of the nation’s top-rated team. Intimidated? Who’s intimidated? Nobody in green.

“Notre Dame this, Notre Dame that — they’ve been living off that championship cake for a long time,” said frustrated linebacker Percy Snow after the Spartans beat up on the Irish but failed to beat them, 21-13, leaving Notre Dame undefeated (3-0) and still atop the rankings. “We had them intimidated. You could see it in their eyes. They were like tippy-toeing past us.”

And so they did — but they got past them just the same. On a few dumb mistakes. On a few great plays. When coach George Perles gathered his unranked team in the locker room, the players’ heads bowed, their chests heaving, he began by saying: “No excuses. I don’t want any of you saying sour grapes. We had our chances. They beat us.”

“A” for effort.

“L” for loss. How else can you spell it? The Spartans came to this holy field and misbehaved; they did things you’re not supposed to do to mighty Notre Dame, king of the hill, No. 1 in the country. They almost came back from a 14-point deficit. They forced mistakes — heck, they literally ripped the ball away from quarterback Tony Rice, the Heisman Trophy candidate. They shut down the Irish passing game, while discovering a passing game of their own. They had the game in their hands. And it fell out.

Here was Enos, the redshirt junior, still dripping from his birth into the college game, and he fired his first career touchdown pass, over two defenders to James Bradley. A 30- yarder? Michigan State? A touchdown pass?

And here was Enos, after that dazzling play, overthrowing his receiver in the fourth quarter, a silly mistake, a ball that never had a chance — “I wish I’d had a string to yank it back,” he said afterward — and instead linebacker Donn Grimm intercepted it, killing the rally and MSU’s best chance for the lead.

Here was the Michigan State coaching staff making beautiful calls, directing the offense like a passing machine, 200 yards in the air. And yet, for all that strategic genius, here was a confused MSU sideline in the final minute of the first half, unable to wisely use time-outs, missing chances and settling for a field goal when a touchdown appeared possible.

The whole afternoon was like that, wasn’t it? The Spartans would force an Irish mistake, then make one of their own. Each time they recovered a fumble
(the Irish made two) or made an interception (two also), you could hear green-and-white fans chanting, “Now’s the time. We have to stick it in there!”

And yet, the Spartans could not. For all their sweat, for all their mean licks — and they made some hits Saturday that could knock the fat off an elephant — the Spartans could never take the lead. “That’s what counts,” Perles said. “People talk about our conservative offense. Now (after 29 pass attempts) they’ll probably call us liberal. All we’re trying to do is win within the rules. And today, we came up short.”

“A” for effort.

“L” for loss. Today is the second Sunday in succession that Michiganders wake up feeling they should have something to celebrate, and finding nothing to celebrate at all. Michigan lost to these same Irish last week, 24-19, on Raghib Ismail’s two crazy kickoff returns. This week, Ismail never touched a kickoff (“I’m not dumb,” Perles said), but another swifty, tailback Ricky Watters, did the damage instead, 89 yards rushing, including two touchdown bursts that accounted for the winning margin.

That was that. Coach Lou Holtz said he was “gratified.” Rice said: “I never played that badly.” And once again, our state is left to wonder what it takes to beat these too-humble guys in the gold helmets.

Surely Snow is wondering. He covered the field like a jet-powered tank. Was there anyone he didn’t hit? He raced across the field to drill Rice again and again, from the left side, from the right side. Once he literally yanked him to the ground over another body. Playing his last game against the Irish, Snow was a senior possessed, he was the thud you heard on nearly every tackle. He made 15 for the day, eight unassisted.

And what good did it do? Numbers were of no consolation. Neither was stopping Rice, nor erasing Ismail, nor nearly winning without Ezor, who suffered a separated shoulder on the second play and carried four times for 27 yards.

Give the Irish credit. When they needed to, they regained consciousness, marching 62 yards for the clinching touchdown, on Anthony Johnson’s one-yard run. “We have to get out of this habit of just playing hard when we have to, instead of dominating all game long,” Johnson said.

Well. That’s one way to look at it. The other is that sooner or later, someone is going to catch these guys, because they’re not as intimidating as a No. 1 team might be. The Spartans, remember, unlike the Wolverines, are nowhere to be found in the Top 25 rankings. At least they weren’t last week. The Irish will either lose soon, or become so battle- tough by these close calls that they won’t lose for years.

So be it. When the final gun sounded, the Spartans were trying a desperation play, a long pass by redshirt freshman John Gieselman, who entered only for that one down. He fumbled the snap, and the ball bounced helplessly away. High above the corner of the field, the unbeatable opponent clicked off the final seconds. The scoreboard. The damn scoreboard.

“We should have won,” said Snow, then he bit his lip.

Shoulda. Coulda. Didn’t. Notre Dame will not soon forget these hits. The fans here will not soon forget the lumps in their throats.

“A” for effort.

“L” for loss.

“N” for nothing you can do about it.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight from 9 to 11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests include Stacey Mobley, Richard Johnson, Scott Lusader.CUTLINE Michigan State’s Blake Ezor grimaces in pain after shoulder separation in first quarter.

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