Party Like it's 1999: A Ten Year Look Back at a Top 10 Spartan Football Team! Part Three

Jonathan Schopp

Not Purdue, Not Again!!!

Standing amongst college football's elite, the 6-0 Spartans headed into the heart of the 1999 Big Ten season facing unfamiliar challenge, handling great early season success. Nick Saban had continually worked for an opportunity to win a Big Ten Championship and National accolades since returning to MSU. Midway through his fifth season as Head Coach, Spartan Football was back in the National spotlight with all their goals in sight. Nearly everything the Spartans had tried to that point in '99 had turned to gold. From the opening game comeback win against Oregon to the convincing home victory over Michigan, the Spartans pretty much had their way with the first half of the season's schedule. State was hot, but about to be road tested in successive weeks.

Following the "24 hour rule" Nick Saban used to either celebrate or bemoan the previous Saturday's performance, the Spartan staff tried to keep the players looking forward to Purdue. Something didn't click. The Spartans weren't yet ready to handle their new level of success. Worse, Purdue really had to have the Michigan State game. The Boilers were reeling, and pointed to the MSU game as the turning point in their season. They also had a schematic advantage because Head Coach Joe Tiller's squad was running a cutting edge spread offense that Big Ten defenses had a hard time figuring out.

The Spartans got drilled by the Boilermakers with a 52-28 piece of humble pie in a game that wasn't close too long after kick off. Purdue had an unstoppable offensive combination in QB Drew Brees and WR Chris Daniels. The pair scorched the Spartans and snapped State's perfect season without a tough battle. Brees threw for more than 500 yards while Daniels set Big Ten records with 21 catches and 301 yards receiving. One of the biggest keys to shutting down the spread attack is the execution of tackling in space. MSU highlighted that point to everyone watching the game by failing to do so consistently. Too often in the Purdue game the Spartans didn't wrap up when tackling, didn't play their angles well, and failed to communicate as a defensive unit.

This game got away early as Brees and company sprinted off to a 21-6 lead in the first quarter. The Spartan Nation sat in a state of shock. This wasn't the team that burst out to a 6-0 start. The first half was undisciplined, unmotivated, and possibly the worst of the '99 season. It didn't get much better from there as the Spartans continued to hurt themselves, turning the ball over a total of six times and giving up five sacks in route to the momentum stopping loss. For a team that was starting to think Rose Bowl, the Purdue effort quickly clipped those ideas from many a mental garden.

Saban and his staff had wondered even out loud how the upstart Spartans would handle success. The Purdue game didn't provide the answers they were looking for. The Spartans failed to come out and match the intensity of the home team Boilermakers, who were playing a game they needed to have. If there's one key to winning on the road, it might just be to match the intensity of the home team, especially out of the gate.

Following a bitter one-point home loss to Purdue the year before, and a wretched come from ahead loss late in West Lafayette two years prior, the Spartans still didn't come to play in '99. It's just as astonishing to look back today as one who attended the '98 implosion, and watched the '97 defeat that's still referenced today by Spartan Football as one of the hardest losses in modern times, that MSU didn't play Purdue better in '99.

Once is a Fluke, Twice is a Coincidence?

Bucky Wasn't Friendly in 1999
Bucky Wasn't Friendly in 1999

After the 52-28 swagger stomping loss at Purdue, the Spartans road through the Big Ten didn't get any easier. State had to go right back out to one of the toughest environments in the Big Ten, Camp Randall stadium. The upstart Badgers, who went onto win the Big Ten in '99, were anything but the ideal follow up to Purdue. Wisconsin featured a powerful and physically punishing team that was primed for a run to the Rose Bowl.

The Spartans could not stop Wisconsin's seminal big running back  Ron Dayne. While Dayne had started the season slowly, he was in top form heading into the MSU game. So were the Badgers, who had just rolled their prior two home opponents by a slight margin of 99-10. To counter, Spartan Defensive Coordinator Bill Miller's squad had only allowed 279 rushing yards in its first seven games, the fewest in the country. The MSU staff felt they were ready to compete with the Big Ten's best. They were wrong.

Early in the first quarter, Dayne exploded for a 51 yard touchdown and never looked back. That quick haymaker seemed to defeat any hope of shutting down the Badger running game. I remember watching that run unfold and getting a sinking feeling this one could get ugly. The Spartans were shell shocked, and never really recovered. Dayne went onto bully his way to 152 first-half yards, shutting down hope of a Spartan victory. It would end in a 40-10 beat down. Spartan Football was suddenly reeling.

Most Valuable Bye Week Ever

The Spartans had done a lot of things right in the first six games of the year, but they did nearly enough wrong in the following two to derail the whole season. The placement of the '99 bye week was critically important to this program, and likely the most valuable in school history. The Spartans could not afford another loss, let alone another embarrassing in-conference thumping. It was imperative the team identified their mistakes, learned lessons from them, and focused only ahead to the regular season's closing three games. All three were winnable, but certainly loseable based on the previous two performances.

Having been blown out in two straight conference road games, it was time for MSU football to regroup. They had to regroup. For a team that had risen from unranked to 5th in the nation, there had been far more positives in the 6-2 start than negatives. But Spartan Football badly needed a bye week to remember that, and maybe more importantly, to believe in it. When you're talking about young men somewhere between 18 and 22 years old, their psyche isn't always that of a level headed-mature adult. The week off was needed to restore a confidence in these Spartans that they were more like the 6-0 squad than the one trounced in the last two weeks.

There was still a lot to play for, including an outside shot at a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl bid. Yet, the momentum was headed one way, the wrong way, and headed there fast. It was time to reset, retool, and refocus. Saban said it would ultimately be up to the players to determine the outcome of their season, which was an interesting comment, coming from such a controlling and dictator-like coach.

Bounce Back on the Buckeyes

The Spartans couldn't wait to play in Spartan Stadium again. It was time to get the '99 season back on track by hosting the revenge minded Ohio St. Buckeyes. Saban called the Ohio St. game the defining moment of MSU's season. It was a game they had to have after the hot start and subsequent collapse. Had the OSU game not gone well, the season would've likely followed a familiar path to Spartan fans: a fast start followed by long and painful crash.

It's fair to say the John Cooper Buckeyes never recovered from the Spartans' '98 upset victory in Columbus. Had Ohio St. won in '98, they likely would've won the National Title. Cooper might have coached at Ohio St. a while longer, and definitely would've left a much different legacy in Columbus. That bitter upset sent the Cooper era in a declining direction, and by '99 the Buckeyes were lighter on talent and experience than in previous years.

The Spartans took the field to a warm and supportive reception on yet another windy but sunny day in East Lansing. Everyone knew the Spartans had to get off to a good start, and back to executing the fundamentals with an attention to detail. MSU had game planned to beat Ohio St. in a plodding and straight forward fashion. After being beaten so badly at the point of attack by Wisconsin, the Spartans made it their top priority to play and win the game at the line of scrimmage.

Saban wanted to force the Buckeyes to bring down Running Back T.J. Duckett, a task that was proving to be more and more difficult. By the Ohio St. game, Duckett had developed into more of a Running Back than just a big and fast guy running with the ball. He had begun to build the essential Running Back skills of reading defenses and hitting holes. Though far from a polished product, Duckett had made strides to becoming the dominant feature back he would end up at MSU. Remember, Duckett had never really played the position before his freshmen fall.

Playing the Buckeyes was a Good Thing in 1999
Playing the Buckeyes was a Good Thing in 1999

Saban also wanted to put QB Bill Burke in a position to manage the Ohio St. game without feeling like he had to play above his head in order to beat the Buckeyes. This strategy would guide the Spartans through the rest of their regular season. There's a big difference between primarily relying on your Quarterback to make plays and putting your passer in position to take advantage of big plays when they're out there and have been tactically set up by planning. The former usually leads to a College Quarterback forcing the issue and making costly mistakes. The latter often puts a team in position to get the most out of its talents and abilities.

The Spartans stepped up to the challenge and dusted Ohio St. off 23-7 in a game OSU Head Coach John Cooper said was never as close as the score looked. The Buckeyes had been dismantled and embarrassed from sideline to sideline. MSU completely outplayed and out worked OSU at the line of scrimmage. The last time Ohio State had less total offense was in 1963. Michigan State's swarming defense held the Buckeyes to just 61 yards in the half, nine on the ground. OSU didn't even cross the 50 yard line in the first half.

The Spartan rush defense responded to the Ron Dayne embarrassment by stuffing the Bucks to their worst overall rushing performance since 1965. But it wasn't just the running game that was suffocated. Ohio State quarterbacks were sacked six times. "They were bringing guys from everywhere - linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties, and we didn't pick them up," OSU Head Coach John Cooper said. "There were plays where we were in max protect and still couldn't get the ball off. We never gave our quarterback a chance." Both Buckeye Quarterbacks agreed. "They were blitzing on every play," said QB Austin Moherman, who replaced starting QB Steve Bellisari. "The quarterback doesn't have a chance like that. We didn't have time to make our reads or find our receivers."

Rarely has an MSU defense been as dominating of an Ohio St. team. Though not the same caliber as the fine '98 team, theses were still the Ohio St. Buckeyes. And MSU had just dominated a formidable opponent in a game they had to have. The special season of 1999 was back on track, and building towards a dramatic and unpredictable finish.

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