It's the close losses that have hurt Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. Of his 12 losses, nine were by a touchdown or less. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
It's hard to imagine two tougher losses, back to back. It's hard to imagine Michigan State easily dusting itself off, as if nothing happened.
But this is why Mark Dantonio is here, for moments like this, when danger arrives and fans shriek and nasty perceptions get dragged out of unlocked closets. Dantonio has shown plenty in his two-plus seasons as head coach, but he hasn't faced anything quite like this, a pressure-packed test and a perfect test at the same time.
MSU finally lugged high expectations into a season, and now it sits at 1-2 after last-minute losses to Notre Dame and Central Michigan. Now it travels to Wisconsin for the Big Ten opener, and at the risk of being flagged for Unnecessary Hyperbole, I'd call this one of the huge games of Dantonio's regime -- not only for what can be won, but for what can be lost.
Yes, I still think the Spartans can finish in the top three in a weak Big Ten. Their young offense could be very good, and indications are, sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins is equipped to shake off his late interception in the 33-30 loss at Notre Dame.
Lose to the Badgers and the Spartans are 1-3 and officially buckling at the very time their rivals in Ann Arbor appear to be rising, with the in-state showdown next week. Beat the Badgers and practically every realistic goal still is possible.
Time to move on
Dantonio arrived three years ago with his Jim Tressel lineage and stoicism and took a sledgehammer to Michigan State's flightiness. The days of one mistake leading to five more, and one bad loss leading to three more, had to be over, right?
Well, I think they're mostly over, which is why I like the Spartans' chances against the Badgers (3-0), who again look bruising but limited. The reality is, doubts would come rushing back with another loss, especially because of the devastating way this all began, with a botched finish against Central Michigan.
"We've been to two bowl games in two years and fully expect to go to another one this year, and expect to challenge for a Big Ten championship," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We are 0-0, and I think to jump off the bridge right now is a mistake. I think our confidence is high and our energy is high and our focus will be there. We don't have the 'poor me's' this week."
There was defiance in Dantonio's tone, because he knows one late gaffe led to each loss. The Spartans must win games like that, absolutely. Dantonio is 17-12 here, and nine of the losses were by a touchdown or less.
The flip side is, the Spartans were blown out by Ohio State and Penn State last season. Discounting the victory over Montana State, they've lost four straight to FBS (Division I-A) teams.
This could spin away from them, if they're not careful. But this is not a time for the program's leader to be squeamish, and he sure doesn't sound it.
"You're disappointed, you're irritated, but you can look at (the two losses) and say, they are not better than we are in a large way," Dantonio said. "You become a more dangerous football team. You become tougher and tougher and tougher, because you should become more resilient."
Actions speak louder
Speaking of resilience, Cousins basically cemented the starting role by throwing for 302 yards against the Fighting Irish. Of course, his leaping heave with 57 seconds left was a really poor decision, although he handled the questions with admirable poise.
Any suggestions that backup Keith Nichol should take over were brushed off by a bemused Dantonio.
"Which armchair quarterback was talking like that?" he said. "The end result is, if (Cousins) would have scored, they'd be talking about him like he's Joe Montana, rather than Joe off the pickle boat. I think he did an outstanding job."
Ah, the distance between the pickle boat and the (champion)ship isn't much sometimes, a bad throw here, a big throw there. Frankly, I don't have a problem with Dantonio's quarterback plan, inserting Nichol at times. Cousins apparently doesn't have a problem either, completing 66 percent of his passes.
Offense isn't the Spartans' concern -- a porous defense is, yet again. That has to change for them to be regular contenders.
There's always work ahead, to keep old doubts buried. The last time Michigan State faced such a treacherous situation under Dantonio came in his first year. The Spartans started 4-0, then lost five of six, including a crusher to Michigan, 28-24. They proceeded to stomp Purdue and Penn State and lose a close bowl game to Boston College.
That was back in the formative stage of Dantonio's program, when less was expected. It's tougher now, and it's supposed to be.
I think the Spartans are better-prepared to handle it, but there is the nagging issue of actually doing it.