ARLINGTON, Texas — Almost five years ago to the day, Michigan State played Alabama in a bowl game. The result was something like pulp in an ash heap run over by several heavy construction trucks, with a house then dropped on it. The Spartans lost by six touchdowns in the Citrus Bowl on that Jan. 1, and no one liked to talk about that going into a reunion with the Crimson Tide in this week’s Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal. And what happened on Thursday wasn’t as bad.
It was, in its own bloody and miserable way, something worse.
A 38–0 bludgeoning suffered by the Spartans demonstrated that, no, all of the upgrades in talent, confidence and standards over the last four years were not enough. That it is insufficient to walk into a game with a massive chip on your shoulder when the other guys are stronger and faster and not concerned with respecting you, because they would prefer to take that chip and bash you with it. Everything Michigan State had done since Jan. 1, 2011 was intended to prevent a repeat of that day. Yet it left AT&T Stadium broken, Sparty down, wondering how far it had really come when it was so far from where it expected to be.
“I don’t even think they were that good,” said sophomore defensive tackle Malik McDowell, who may well have been one of the few Spartans to hold his own. “I’m not gonna say they’re not good—obviously they’re good, they beat us 38–0. I don’t know what happened today. I can’t even tell you. I ain’t never been through nothing like this. I can’t even explain what’s going on.”
It was an assessment that neatly covered the psychological and physical disconnect here. If one loss didn’t undo winning at least 11 games in five of the last six seasons, did it cast a Texas-sized pall over those accomplishments? Is the measure of the difference between Alabama and Michigan State just a bunch of minor errors laid end to end, as the Spartans suggested after the game? Or is it a symptom of shortcomings much more complex and difficult to address?
This is the identity crisis coach Mark Dantonio’s program comes to now. If this is what a championship contender looks like, it bore little resemblance to what Michigan State mustered Thursday.
The blue-collar Big Ten champion managed 29 rushing yards and hit on less than half its pass attempts. It surrendered four sacks, gave up a punt return touchdown and allowed the opposing quarterback to go 25 for 30 on a night when the defense otherwise held a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback in check. From along the line of scrimmage to deep in the secondary, Alabama was better than Michigan State just about everywhere. “It wasn’t that anybody was too hurt or wasn’t prepared enough or wasn’t good enough,” senior left tackle Jack Conklin said. “We just dropped the ball and didn’t come out and play the way we usually do.”
Losing this way without any available excuse might actually be the more insidious thing. It would’ve been far easier to swallow if, say, Connor Cook’s right shoulder was a mess, which the Spartans senior quarterback insisted was not the case. (“I’m not going to be out there playing on a shoulder that needed to be operated on,” Cook said. “I’m fine.”) So, the defeat certainly reconfirms the urgency in East Lansing to pile up more players with top-shelf raw ability, which the staff is doing with increasing regularity; Michigan State’s last two recruiting classes ranked in the national top 25 and its current crop of commitments from the 2016 class features nine composite four-star recruits alone and stands to be the best haul of Dantonio’s tenure. (The Spartans are 10th in Scout.com's team rankings.)
It may be foolish to think the Spartans can regularly match the depth of ability on the Crimson Tide’s roster. Maybe no one can. But if you start with highly talented players, and you coax out of them what you coaxed out of zero- to two-star recruits the past few years, then you can close a gap that seemed so expansive Thursday.
Because, for one example, getting outclassed on the line of scrimmage as Michigan State was in the Cotton Bowl isn’t a matter of schematic adjustments or technical proficiency. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t handle them,” Conklin said. “We thought we had more than a chance. We thought we could handle these guys. They’re a good team. But Ohio State has just a good a front seven. Penn State has a great front seven. Iowa. It wasn’t that these guys were super-talented, way faster and way bigger than all of us and pushing us around.”
Yet the 82,812 in the building saw just that, and their eyes did not deceive them. Derrick Henry made that abundantly clear by stiff-arming Shilique Calhoun to the turf in the fourth quarter, the Heisman winner treating the three-time All-Big Ten defensive end like a tumbleweed bumping up against his ankle, just before Henry strode into the end zone for the final score of the evening. Dantonio’s theme for the season was Reach Higher, and, in the end, his program’s reach did not extend quite far enough. “If we were sitting in here and we lost by five points, people might be saying nice things about you a little bit more, but we wouldn’t feel any better,” the Spartans ninth-year coach said.
The conundrum, of course, is Michigan State beat the one Big Ten team purported to be a talent peer for Alabama: Ohio State. The Spartans had enough to win on that rainy Nov. 21 night in Columbus, even with Cook injured and unable to play. But Thursday recast even that victory as perhaps the residue of providence, with Michigan State benefiting from several strange turns, including the Buckeyes staff temporarily forgetting star tailback Ezekiel Elliott was good.
Nick Saban stood up for the talent along the opposite sideline—“I see a lot of improvement in quality of player, size of player,” the Crimson Tide coach said Thursday, when asked about the difference from 2011—and he was essentially right. It’s not a matter of whether the Spartans are better. It’s a matter of whether they’re better enough.
The answer appeared clearer than Michigan State would admit on Thursday. Conklin walked off the field chewing his mouthpiece, half-heartedly raising his helmet toward Spartans fans in the stands while blankly staring ahead. Senior fullback Trevon Pendleton’s lower lip quivered as he headed to the locker room. Between bowl debacles against Alabama, this is a program that won 54 of 67 games. But the bookend disasters suggest something is still missing, even if all the hard work put in since New Year’s Day 2011 was meant to ensure the Spartans had everything they needed.
“It’s something I guess we can measure up to,” junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “All we can do now is try to get back here.”
There’s much more to it than that. Calhoun alluded to this in a speech to a team still in shock in the locker room: The garrulous defensive end said, according to fellow captain Darien Harris, that he was excited to see what would come next. He was excited to see how younger talent, like former five-star recruit McDowell, will build upon what these seniors leave behind. Everything was about progress, even in the moments when everyone takes a giant step back.
“This will be a little bit of fuel to the fire,” Harris said. “That chip on the shoulder that keeps popping up—here it is.”
Here it is, and as Thursday demonstrated all too emphatically, it isn't nearly enough.