When you cover a team every single day, the two most important events are the post-game press conference and watching practice. It is impossible to cover a team as best as you can and as fair as you can if you aren’t at those two things. Yes, even more important that the actual game.
Post-game press conferences, games live in person, and practice carry more raw emotion and frank honesty that more planned events do. Coaches are anal retentive when it comes to practice and it is there you can see who is getting the most repetitions, attitudes, work ethic, leadership skills, and more.
Yesterday was one of those events. If you watched on TV you may have missed Mark Dantonio at the end of the first quarter, gathering his team for an emotional and fiery speech. Knowing him as well as I do, I am sure it didn’t have the colorful language of Bobby Knight, but it was a fitting meeting being on campus were Bobby Knight reigned for decades.
The Spartans have been plagued with starting slow. Star MLB Max Bullough let out that frustration after the game saying, “I think no question that we need to come out faster in the first half. That is no secret. I think (even) last year we went to the Big Ten Championship game. Always a little slow in the first half. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know?”
Indiana came out to a roaring 17-0 start and had a 183-22 yards gained advantage. MSU had four 15 yard personal fouls and they looked horrible. The Spartans responded to their demonstrative and emotional coach and scored 14 points in the second quarter, but their defense still sputtered. They headed to the locker room down 27-14 at the half.
Dantonio said of the Spartans poor first quarter performance, “We talked all week about having to play. It’s not easy, but every day you have to come ready to play. I always think our focus is there and I always think we have good practices. I felt really good yesterday and really good this morning, but we came out in the first quarter and didn’t play well. They made plays though. I knew all week long that one thing I knew about Indiana was that they were going to throw the ball up and their guys were going to go up and play the football.”
The tale of the first half was an undisciplined team that came in expecting IU to fold. There was no doubt MSU was a better team, but you still have to play and they didn’t. Bullough credited the Hoosiers effort coming out saying, “I think they thought they could win this football game.” That was a very honest assessment by Bullough, but a clear indication of the obvious talent discrepancy that they had to look at all week on video.
The second half was much different. MSU only gave up 37 yards of offense to the Hoosiers and no points. It was the best half of football the Spartans played all year. They garnered 244 yards of offense and 17 points. They looked close to the team we thought they would be to start the year.
Dantonio addressed the atmosphere in the Spartan locker room at halftime. “We are 4-2, but that first half is something that you don’t forget. I thought at halftime the players refocused and did a great job setting the tone in the locker room for themselves and started rallying back.”
Even Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson thought that the Spartans of the second half were very good. He said after the game, “Give credit to their guys and their coaches, they got it done at halftime and played a good second half. You’re not going to beat a good team, you’re not going to win the Big Ten like that and you’re not going to beat good teams if you don’t play 60 (minutes).”
Coach Dantonio was pleased with the second half as you can imagine. Reflecting and saying, “We came out the second half and we only got a field goal the first series, but we started playing much better. We played much better on defense, and offensively we played extremely well.”
Last week I took heat when I wrote, “Improving Spartans Not as Good As We Thought,” and Dantonio agreed with me after the game. He said, “We are a four and two football team. Any way you look at it, maybe NOT the four and two football team we thought we were, but we lost two games to two undefeated football teams.”
You have to go back to Super Bowl 22 in 1988 to find what I think was perhaps the perfect football game and Doug Williams of the Redskins was still 18 of 29 in passing. Football isn’t perfect. If you only watched the first half you wanted to vomit. Don’t feel bad Spartan Nation the players and coaches did as well. If you watched the second half it was a dominant and masterful performance. Well, OK, almost.
Nick Hill once again put a punt on the ground. I would suspect his days are numbered. Dantonio was livid the last time and benched him for it mid-game. The Spartans head man admitted that this week, “We are going to have to take a look at that.”
Maxwell played great again. He was 24/40 for a 60% average, but with five more drops the Spartans have an unfathomable 30 for the year. That is atrocious. Still the OL with a lot of shuffling because of injury played significantly better after watching the film than how they looked in person. The first quarter was as painful and ugly as the rest of the team, but from the second quarter on, they looked great. They only gave up one sack, while letting Maxwell throw for 290 yards and LeVeon to run for 121 yards.
With Dion Sims out, the Spartans were without their best pass catcher and that had to scare the coaches in the booth and the fans around the world. This bi-polar wide receiver group, to put it nicely, has struggled this year. So in came a star WR and true freshman Aaron Burbridge. He had taken over the #1 spot in the depth chart this week and to his credit he looked like a number one.
He was the Spartans lead WR catching eight balls for 134 yards, and most importantly was that he had two balls in particular that were not well thrown, but he was able to use his body, go up and create separation, and make the grab. While his teammates have struggled to catch the balls that have hit them in the hands, he was catching balls he had an excuse not to.
The Spartan Nation saw a young man with a high ceiling that he isn’t even close to reaching. He wasn’t good; he was spectacular and a true freshman at that. You may remember a few weeks ago Spartan Nation hinted that a change was coming that would put Burbridge as the number one. Now healthy, he got it.
How good was Burbridge? MSU Sports Information Director John Lewandowski who has had to hear the Spartans WR group get torched all year (and rightfully so) was quick to point out, “Playing in just his fourth career game, Aaron Burbridge had eight catches for 134 yards . . . those totals are season highs for a Spartan wide receiver this season . . . the 134 receiving yards are the most by a Spartan freshman since Terry Love in 2004 (9 catches for 103 yards).”
The game of football is about extremes. Ups and downs are part of what makes this game perfect. Who can manage them, who can avoid them, and who can endure them? How players respond to adversity tells you about their ability to play the game. Everyone makes mistakes.
Coming into the season, Johnny Adams was a preseason All American, but during the season he hasn’t played like one. He had a terrible game that has mirrored the season seeing him be the target of every opposing team. Even IU admitted he was their target. With the changes in the depth chart, the Spartans are going to have to take a look at someone else.
With two redshirt freshman behind him, Arjen Colquhon and Trae Waynes, and a true stud in Ezra Robinson being redshirted this season, what are the Spartans to do? Colquhon and Waynes are tied as his backup according to the depth chart, but the Spartans are struggling with Adams in the game. After watching the film this weekend I will ask Dantonio about that on Tuesday.
Bennie Fowler has made some plays this year, but he has not been good. A super young man character wise and a gifted athlete, it has been head shaking. After learning last Tuesday he had been dropped on the depth chart in favor of Burbridge, he didn’t whine and he didn’t pout, he just worked harder. Over an hour after practice ended last Tuesday he was still out on the practice field taking extra repetitions. He has been a big brother to Burbridge and as anyone who knows him can tell you, a super teammate.
In the fourth quarter the Spartans were trailing 27-24. Facing a critical second and ten at their own 49 with under seven minutes to go in the game, the hard work of Fowler showed itself. Going up the left MSU sideline he took a pass from Maxwell, made his moves on the IU defenders, kept his balance, and scampered 36 yards for the go ahead and winning touchdown.
Fowler’s QB Andrew Maxwell said last Tuesday after his demotion,” Well, I would say don’t expect this to be the last of Bennie Fowler. Bennie is a competitor, a guy who is not going to take this lying down. He’s going to come back, fight, do everything he can do in practice.” He proved prophetic.
When the chips were down and the Spartan signal caller needed to make a play, he went to Fowler. Remember me telling you of the importance of the post-game press conference and practice? Coaches and players can say and do say a lot of hyperbole. What they do matters. When MSU needed Fowler, they came calling. To his credit, and probably to his parents’ credit, he never quit. He worked harder, and he and MSU were rewarded for it.
Coach D is right. This is not the team we expected sitting where we are right now. They have also lost two big games to two teams that are still undefeated and top ten teams. If MSU wins out, they head to Pasadena. With this team, they can’t think like that. Right now it has to be all Iowa which is a game they can win and should win, but as you saw from the Indiana game, focus and a fast start are key.
Coach Dantonio just prior to the start of the season wasn’t backing down from all the talk about this team. When asked if he had to temper the talk he denied it. He said, “You know, expectations from the general public perception may be a little bit higher than maybe they’ve been in the past couple years. But expectations in the room that I sit in, expectations that come from the players remain the same. We’ve always gone into every football game expecting to win.”
MSU has a slate full of games that they can win ahead of them. They have yet to play their best football and they have yet to have a fast start. They are improving and they still aren’t as good as we thought they would be. What they are is resilient and what they are is getting better.
It was a tale of two halves on Saturday. The good news is that they finished and for all the people who only see things as half empty this was a game MSU would have lost prior to the Dantonio era. Thankfully, this is the Dantonio era.
It is clear what has to be fixed, but it is clear that MSU has the people and players to fix it. Spartan Nation need not sit and fret that the Spartan Football Program lacks the coaches and players to fix the issues. They do. That is why even though it wasn’t pretty as we exit Bloomington; the Spartan Nation has many reasons to smile.