Wojo: Spartans smacked with reality they're not yet elite

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Defensive lineman Malik McDowell walks the sidelines during MSU's blowout loss Thursday night.

Arlington, Texas – The Spartans knew they had room to grow, they just had no idea how much. They found out in the most painful, humbling way possible.

The higher you go, the harder you fall, and this was a brutal plummet. Michigan State had accomplished so much, it believed it was past this type of defrocking. But Alabama delivered a staggering rebuke, and a reminder that the highest level requires uncommon talent, in addition to physical play and motivation.

Once the Tide got rolling, the Spartans could do little to stop it. By the end of Alabama's 38-0 thumping in the Cotton Bowl Thursday night, it was hard to keep it all in perspective. Yes, Michigan State won the Big Ten, reached the playoff and finished 12-2. It was a memorable season, a great season, but it was not a complete season, not by the program's new standards.

The embarrassing finish doesn't change how the Spartans got here, but it sullies the shine. By the measure of their own championship goal, they failed. Mark Dantonio's program is good enough to rebound, for sure. This was a journey of discovery, and now of recovery, and if Michigan State truly is here to stay – among the top four teams in the country -- that's the next step to prove.

This was the first time in five years the Spartans ended a season in tears and disappointment, after four straight bowl wins. It was the first time in 15 years they were shut out. It was the first time in a long time they looked outmanned, overwhelmed by Alabama's size, strength and speed.

This wasn't as bad as Alabama's 49-7 beating of Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl, but in some ways it was worse. Because five years ago, the Spartans weren't expected to measure up. Now they are, and for a chunk Thursday night, they did. They trailed only 10-0 at halftime, but Connor Cook's goal-line interception late in the half changed everything, and the second half was unrelenting punishment.

"We didn't get it done collectively, that's as coaches, that's as players, that's as a program," Dantonio said. "But you remain focused on being positive, and you take the next step in life. We had a great season, and we'll dwell on that."

What's missing

It won't be easy to get back here, but it's not supposed to be. Cook and many other seniors depart, leaving more holes for teams like Alabama to attack. It wasn't just that Nick Saban's powerful crew beat Michigan State at its own trench warfare, with a punishing defensive line that sacked Cook four times. The Crimson Tide did it with elements the Spartans must collect, speed on the perimeter, in the secondary and in the receiving corps.

Michigan State's receivers struggled to get open when Cook did have time to throw. And Cook struggled all night, although he said his right shoulder was 100 percent. You almost wish the explanation was as easy as an injury, because something was way off, as Cook was 19-for-39 with two interceptions.

Henning: Saban shows why he's nation's best coach

Alabama's less-heralded Jake Coker was brilliant, 25-for-30, and freshman receiver Calvin Ridley was unstoppable, with eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Another speedster, Cyrus Jones, churned 57 yards on a punt return for the spirit-breaking touchdown that made it 24-0.

"We got this far, and obviously we wanted to play a little bit better," said linebacker Riley Bullough, his eyes red and watery. "But now we know where we need to measure up to. Up front, I feel we played pretty well, we stopped the run. We just need to do a little better on the back end, but we need to help those guys too."

The Spartans did stuff Heisman winner Derrick Henry, holding him to 75 yards. But that clearly was expected by Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who went to Coker early.

When the Spartans also realized they couldn't run, they went to Cook, and that didn't work so well against the Crimson Tide's pressure. Michigan State finished with only 29 yards rushing and was outgained overall 440-239. From a close game late in the first half, it became a rout rather quickly.

In the locker room afterward, the Spartans still weren't sure how it happened.

"We thought we could handle those guys," tackle Jack Conklin said. "They're a good team, not taking anything away from them. But it wasn't like those guys were super talented, way faster and way bigger than all of us, just pushing us around. I don't know if it was a focus thing, we just didn't finish."

'I don't know what happened'

Michigan State's defense played fairly well, except for the deep shots to Ridley and O.J. Howard that exposed the soft secondary.

"I don't think they were that good," defensive tackle Malik McDowell said. "Well, I'm not gonna say that, because obviously they beat us 38-zip. But I don't know what happened. I've never been through anything like this."

It was an eye-opener even for a Michigan State team that beat all sorts of tough foes in tough venues, from Columbus to Ann Arbor to Indianapolis. When reality hits, it hurts, and this was a sobering dose of it.

Saban does this to opponents, makes them rethink how good they truly are. But remember this: Alabama was manically motivated after losing to Ohio State in last year's playoff, and will be a heavy favorite to win the title against Clemson.

After this one, Saban had a positive message for his former team.

"I don't like to make comparisons, but I see a lot of improvement in the quality of player, the size of player (for Michigan State)," Saban said. "They got a really good defensive front. … I think they have a really good team and a really good program, and I see a huge difference in five years."

The Spartans see it too, and they should, even after what happened.

"We have to understand this is a process, and now that we've been in the playoff, we're not the new kids on the block anymore," senior linebacker Darien Harris said. "Guys know what it takes to get here now. And I definitely expect the Spartans to be in the playoff hunt next year."

Getting here was enormously difficult, and Michigan State proved for 13 weeks that it belonged. One poor game doesn't change that, but it does show how daunting the elite competition can be.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski