Iowa Loss Revisited: Three Critical Errors That Cost MSU In an Amazing Game!

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Photo Courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

Photo Courtesy of Bill Marklevits.

As the sun set on Saturday and the magical presence of a night game at the High Cathedral of the Spartan Nation set in, you could sense it would be an epic event. I had said in my pre-game scouting report and prediction that it would be a heavyweight fight and it was.


If someone was being truly fair, sadly some aren’t able to separate emotion from logic, you couldn’t walk away and not call it a great game and one that will be talked about for generations.


Into the High Cathedral came a top ten team, undefeated, that is lead by a man who prior to the season in an interview with Phil Steele I called the “Tom Osbourne of my generation.” Kirk Ferentz gets more out of less than anyone in the country, and that was one of the reasons while this off-season I called him the best coach not to win a national title in football.


His teams play mistake free and wait for others to make them. You may hate his conservative style, but he can compete playing sound football and win against teams that may be more athletic.


The rebuilding Spartans are doing it much the same way. They came in remarkably as the favorite, and played solid defense that hadn’t been played like that for this team in a long time.


The young Spartans fought and clawed and if the old adage that games are won on the lines is true, then overmatched on offense and defense on the line they shouldn’t have even been in the game. I believe that adage which makes the Spartans play even more amazing.


If anyone says that the product on the field wasn’t worth the price of admission then they are mistaken or simply foolish. You saw two good teams battle it out. Great tackling, great blocking, and they put on a textbook game that could be put in a time capsule and shown in 100 years as what football is supposed to be.


Spartan fans saw the Hawkeyes version of Brian Hoyer play mistake free and keep his team in the game. The Spartan defenders flew from sideline to sideline hitting and fighting with reckless abandon of life or limb matched only by their opponent’s intensity.


The thrill of the Blair White touchdown could only be matched on the teeter-totter of emotion by the heartache of the Iowa score. Both teams left everything on the field. It was one of the greatest games I have ever seen.


With that said, the drama of a great game has many twists and turns like a cheap afternoon soap opera. The Hawkeyes fumbled, but MSU LB Eric Gordon stated the same thing after the game as the tape, “They recovered it.”


The officials made an appropriate call (that even Mark Dantonio acknowledged) when they called a personal foul on a Spartan DB who made contact above the shoulders (that is the rule, like it or not), but the call was shrouded by the fact that it was called wrongly for ‘Launching himself at the Hawkeye’ rather than hitting above the shoulders. It was also shrouded in controversy because the flag was only thrown AFTER a long period of time with the Hawkeye lying on the field in what appeared to be a severe state.


Either way, that call didn’t cost the Spartans the game. There were calls against and for both teams that could be complained about to the Big Ten office. Those are germane, albeit excuses. The Spartans cost themselves that game.


There is no shame in losing to a well coached, top ten, tough and disciplined football team. There was no need for any member of that team to hang their head. Fans should feel the pain that the players and coaches feel, they have a vested interest of time and money in the program, but they are foolish to rip and attack this team for that effort.


Every player, even when mistakes happened, played tough. Some expect perfection from these young men when life simply cannot be lived or performed at that level. Don’t get me wrong; the team with the least mistakes wins football. Also, remember that anything that has humans will have errors and the tremendously talented opponent is scheming on each and every play to outwit you.


I was disappointed, too. I walked away frustrated. I admit that I think the Spartans left opportunities on the field to win that game. I saw three in particular.


  1. The Spartan defense, prior to the final drive, put on one of the most amazing performances seen all time at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans have had NO success this season at all when rushing three down lineman in a prevent LB and DB formation. I asked Coach Mark Dantonio on Sunday night about it and he referenced that they had played some three man front earlier in the evening (he was correct), but they hadn’t played it with the LB and DB prevent scheme of keeping it in front of them. The Spartans took risks and essentially rendered Stanzi impotent all night. On that last drive, the Spartans only rushed three until Iowa got close enough to take shots at the end zone. With the clock being so critical, the Hawkeyes were not going to run the ball and risk the clock running out, and with the clock against them they were going to throw quick. To send the full blitz, knowing that they would throw quick, made absolutely no logical sense at all. That was a poor coaching call. There is no excuse, knowing that Iowa was not going to run and that Iowa was going to throw quick enough, that a pass rushing wouldn’t “make it home.” The Spartans allowed the Hawkeyes, early in that drive, to march down quick and save time when they should have stayed in the game plan that got them there. Based upon the performance of the evening, it is doubtful that Iowa would have marched down the field. If they had, they would have consumed a large amount of the clock and then the Spartans could have gone to a cover 4 (4 DBs back) and 4 LBs covering the flats and the middle of the field. If Iowa had made it that far, they certainly wouldn’t have had the time to take as many shots as they did. It would be unfair to point this out and not give credit to the defense that they were in the hunt to win this game. It would also be wrong to not point out that with what could have been the biggest win of Mark Dantonio’s head coaching career on the line, they blew it. I do not think this was close to the biggest game of his head-coaching career, that remains UM this year, but in a big game that was strategically a failure.
  2. On offense, at times, the Spartans played not to lose rather than to win. Now, I am in no way discrediting Iowa. They did a superb job of playing D. When the Spartans had no choice but open up the game when they needed a score or lose, you saw the hook and ladder. When the game was on the line, they moved the ball. Now, I am in no way asking for a return to the JLS days. I am, however, asking them to realize what is and isn’t working. The Spartans ran 30 times and passed 32. I get the idea that they want balance. I also understand that when it was clear that the run was not working they needed to use the pass to open up the run. Why wait until the last few minutes to try to win a football game? The Iowa lines were superior to MSU. They controlled the Spartans so why not use some play action and slants and try something else. The Spartans wanted to play like Iowa and wait for them to make a mistake. They don’t. MSU was the underdog. MSU was the young upstart team trying for the upset. I am sorry, but in boxing (when I was a kid and people actually cared) when a young upstart challenged a champion he knew he had to knock him out. All the calls went to the champ. If this was two years from now, maybe that strategy works. It doesn’t in 2009 for the Spartans, and they showed no killer instinct. They played not to lose, rather than to win. I have no idea if it would have worked. No one does. But sitting here 48 hours after a loss, it would be less painful if it wasn’t accompanied by woulda, shoulda, and coulda. Some might say, “What if we lost by 14 then?” I would say I would rather have lost by 14 and hailed the staff for going for the kill, like Butch Jones did when he coached that masterful come from behind win for CMU, then sitting here tonight like Rich Rodriguez must feel for the stupid decision to go for one and play for overtime here rather than the win. UM played not to lose here, and so did MSU on Saturday. Both times, both teams lost.
  3. The Spartans are simply giving up too much yardage on kickoffs. In the interest of fairness, I am friends with the Swensons and they are all special people. It doesn’t change that MSU is giving up way too much yardage on kickoffs. You can’t fault Brett if he can’t get the kicks deeper, but they (staff) had two years to prepare for this. Not having a better plan to fix this critical area of need is hurting MSU. This staff preaches and knows the importance of special teams. The absence of a long kickoff is hurting this team.


Those three things are disappointing, but they also shouldn’t take away from what the Spartans did. That was not a game they should have won, and they didn’t. They were in it, and they had a great overall plan. It didn’t work. All of us can pick apart our lives like I did with the above three critical errors. We also need to know that we can’t demand perfection from others that we can’t live in our own lives.


I am disappointed. I do believe a different defensive scheme at the end would have given us a better chance. I do believe that playing to win rather than not to lose would have given us a better chance. I do believe that the depth and coverage on kickoffs hurts us. I do believe that Saturday night was an amazing performance and a game that left a lasting impression on me. This team played tough. The coaches did a very good job. No one was perfect, including Iowa. The refs didn’t cost us the game. MSU lost to a better team and gave a great performance. That happens. They didn’t quit. The Spartan Nation will be back in big games against big opponents, but I am proud of this program.