Chris L. Rucker on MSU's close losses: "You need to put it in the past, but at the same time learn from it." (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)
East Lansing -- It was the play that epitomized the 2009 season for Mark Dantonio's Michigan State Spartans.
On a late October night at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State was two seconds from winning its fourth straight, this one over the No. 6-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. It would've been a huge win for the Spartans, who had bounced back from three close defeats to win three straight and begin to make noise in the Big Ten. A victory over the unbeaten Hawkeyes was the signature victory they needed.
But on fourth down, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi hit receiver Marvin McNutt on a 7-yard slant, squeaking the ball past cornerback Chris L. Rucker for the winning score as time expired.
Iowa 15, Michigan State 13.
"That took a lot out of everybody," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "That was an emotional loss where you thought you got after them for 58 minutes, then all of a sudden didn't make the plays when you needed to. All of a sudden, things turned against you."
Finish what you started
Close losses proved to be the Spartans' Achilles' heel last season. Heart-wrenching defeats to Central Michigan and Notre Dame came early in the season, well before the misery of the Iowa game.
Of the Spartans' seven defeats, five were by less than eight points, including three by less than three, and the loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl was by 10. It's been a trend in Dantonio's tenure as Michigan State coach: Of 17 losses in three seasons, 12 have been by less than one score, and in each of MSU's six losses in 2007, all were within one score.
But instead of wallowing in what some might view as bad luck, this season's Spartans are choosing to use the frustrations of years' past as motivation.
"You don't really want to forget it," Rucker said of the heart-breaking losses. "You need to put it in the past, but at the same time learn from it. We were in position to make plays more often than not. We just need to make the play this year."
The Spartans were certainly in position, not just on specific plays, but also on the scoreboard. In five of their losses last season, the Spartans led at some point in the fourth quarter.
"Finishing games is the most important thing we can focus on this year," left guard Joel Foreman said. "It's how you finish the game, finish anything really.
"You can dissect it all you want, what it comes down to is we've got to finish and that's what we want to do this year."
Learning from the past
While some of the close defeats early in the Dantonio era might be blamed on a team that wasn't ready to be a winner, last year's woes were tough for the Spartans to deal with. Expectations were high heading into the season, and in most of the defeats, one or two specific plays could be seen as the turning point.
It's something Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith says proves the Spartans were better than their record showed.
"You go back to some of those losses, you can point to specific plays," said Griffith, the NFL veteran fullback who played at Illinois. "They weren't that far away. I still think they are a much better team than they were a year ago."
Time will tell if Michigan State makes the most of learning from last year's tough losses. But to Narduzzi there's no other way to approach it.
"It hurts, and nobody wants to feel that hurt," he said. "But it's something you've got to be able to wipe off, be mature enough to come back and play the next down, the next game, the next season."
Next season almost is here. This year's Spartans are about to be put to the test.