Coach Mark Dantonio must lead Michigan State past Minnesota next week just to become bowl-eligible. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
East Lansing — This might sound comical and I certainly would not blame you for laughing at the Michigan State Spartans again.
But the Spartans really believe they are just a few plays away from being a 10-1 football team. At least four players said it Saturday afternoon following a bitter 23-20 loss to Northwestern at Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans turned the ball over four times, failed to score inside the 5 twice and here is the ugly reality the Spartans face: Michigan State is a below-average football team that desperately needs to beat Minnesota in Minneapolis next week just to get into a bowl.
Yeah, they are back to the John L. Smith and Bobby Williams days.
"Words cannot describe it. We just came up short," running back Le'Veon Bell said. "We could easily be a 10-1 football team. But we came up short — a field goal here, a point here, two points there. This team is right there every game."
The Spartans point to the five games they've lost by a total of 13 points. But in fairness you must also point to the three wins they won by a total of 11 points, including an overtime win against Wisconsin.
Not in sync
There is a common theme: The Spartans cannot pull away from anybody because of their sputtering offense. The connection between quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his wide receivers comes in and out like the tide.
Let's throw out the Spartans 41-7 blowout at Central Michigan. In the rest of the games they've been outscored by five points. That is hardly a 10-win football team. It is a team that is a coin flip from winning and losing. The coin too often flips tails on the Spartans because the offense is too inconsistent.
There seems to be something missing with this team. There are good athletes, solid players and a great defense. Perhaps the answer was painted on a brightly colored sign that all of the Northwestern players touched before leaving the field.
It was a simple message but do the Spartans really trust themselves and trust teammates when the going gets tough? That is the true test of a good football team. If you are an above-average football team most games are close.
But how close are you to the guy next to you when the going gets tough?
Maybe the Spartans are still learning one another, particularly on offense because they are so young. Northwestern is not as talented as MSU. It's just that the Wildcats believed a little bit more. They did not play any harder but they've won eight games now and they play like they can make any play.
There were high expectations at Michigan State. But once those expectations fizzled how high was their faith in each other? There seems to be a void on this team somewhere.
"This definitely hurts more because our expectations were extremely high," linebacker Denicos Allen said. "We wanted to win a Big Ten championship. We planned on winning a national championship, but once things started to go downhill I think some guys started to question things, especially where we would be in the future. But we've got to keep on pushing."
Maybe offensive coordinator Dan Roushar placed too much trust in his offense. The offensive line was getting healthy and Roushar believed his guys practiced well. So, he did not add any wrinkles to the offense. He instead tried to perfect on the slop they were running before.
"We wanted to stay with who we are," he said.
The problem is this offense has not worked all season. It struggled in the opening game against Boise State and it struggled in a different way in Game 11 against Northwestern. The Spartans put up 419 yards of total offense against Northwestern but turned the ball over four times and mangled two fourth-and-short situations. They left 12 points on the field in the first half and could never fully recover.
However, when offense is a glaring weakness how could you not add new wrinkles during the break?
"I would say our receiving group has improved and we are running the ball more effectively," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "It's turnovers. You can't turn the ball over four times in a game and one for a touchdown."
You also cannot allow Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson break loose when you've had him hemmed in for much of the game. You cannot miss a chip-shot field goal against Ohio State or allow Nebraska to wiggle free twice when it is up to the plate on its last strike. That's what the Spartans do. They give second and third chances. They lack a knockout punch and are the gift that keeps on giving.
"Every team we played went right down to the wire," Bell said. "Maybe a play here or a play there could have decided the outcome. I felt like the main plays of the year we have not been getting through the course of a season. The thing about football is you never know when those main plays are going to be. That is why you have to play every play like it is your last and you have to play to your full potential and come out on top."
The Spartans must also do some soul searching. How much do they believe in themselves and the guy that sits next to them?