Spartans Must be Stinging After Another Last Second Loss

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It was a classic. It was nearly all we expected it to be. Yet, it was seriously marred by a handful of horrific game changing calls that unfortunately went against MSU. First, there was the remarkably late and awful Personal Foul call on Sr. DB Jeremy Ware. Then we had an apparent Iowa fumble down by the Spartan goal line that went undetected, and seemingly ignored by replay officials. Later in the final Iowa drive, there was a pivotal Defensive Holding call against MSU that possibly could’ve gone uncalled. Could there have also been clock issues on the final drive too? Win or lose, those calls hang a smattering of dark clouds over a truly classic Big Ten battle between the Spartans and Hawkeyes.

Brian Linthicum's Hook and Lateral with Blair White wasn't Enough for a Spartans Win.  Photo:  Bill Marklevits.

Brian Linthicum's Hook and Lateral with Blair White wasn't Enough for a Spartans Win. Photo: Bill Marklevits.

But those calls alone didn’t cost the Spartans this game. There were chances to win in spite of them. It long had the look of a game that would leave the Spartans shaking their heads saying, “we shoulda won that game,” much like the Citrus Bowl against Georgia last year. Many noticed Coach Dantonio roaming the Spartan sidelines all night with an irritated and frustrated glare in his eyes, almost as if he could see that possibility evolving again. From apparent initial frustrations with the Offense in the 1st quarter, through coming up short of a touchdown inside of the 5 yard line, you could see that MSU should have gotten more out of their very good overall effort.

Credit the Hawkeyes though, as the Spartans didn’t really beat themselves. Though, you probably have to credit the Officials a bit too. Yet, Iowa did just enough to hang around and steal a game in which they were probably not the better team. Their ability to hang around, coupled with the game changing calls, gave Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz his first win in East Lansing in five tries. Too much happened in this one to write about completely, but a few things really stood out.

Missed Chances in the First Half

The first half was the slugfest we thought we’d see coming into this one. Both teams featured Defenses that consistently closed gaps to the ball quite quickly. MSU came out throwing to the TEs that had been left out of early action last week. But unfortunately for true Fr. Dion Sims, he was a bit jittery, and dropped two early Balls that would’ve moved the chains and built some Offensive momentum.

Though MSU only had 3 points in the first half, they were probably the team that moved the ball best. However, Coach D did not look happy with his Offense on the sideline. Dantonio appeared frustrated with the Offense from the very first series. Part of that is probably a credit to Iowa’s Defense, and part probably a reflection that MSU left some points out on the field in the 1st.

There was an opportunity to put Rs.-So. QB Keith Nichol into the game as MSU started a drive with around 8:30 left in the 2nd quarter. To that point, Cousins had been victim to a few too many MSU dropped passes, and looked like he was beginning to press a bit. With Cousins maybe trying a bit too hard, and the Offense getting a slight rut, I thought that was the time to change things up. But since Nichol did not play at all tonight, I assume here late that he was unavailable to go.

MSU needed to call a TO before their 3rd and 2 from the Iowa 30, mid way though the 2nd quarter. It was clearly a big play given the score and MSU’s position on the field. Not calling one probably cost them 3 points. On the ensuing 3rd down, Fr. RB Rock Baker missed a blocking assignment, and Cousins was drilled for a sack that cost MSU a chance to put the highest scoring Kicker in school history on to kick for the lead. Swenson would’ve had the wind at his back, and a great chance at making it 6-3 Spartans. Even if MSU had not gotten a yard on that 3rd down play, they could’ve assured themselves a down-wind 47 yard try. Though the Spartans would eventually use all three 1st half TOs, not using one there really hurt.

Second Half Peaks, Struggles, and Blunders

The Spartan Offense struggled in the 1st half against the stingy Iowa defense, and they struggled early in the 2nd half. Iowa’s Defense, coordinated by former Spartan Assistant Norm Parker, does not feature a lot of wasted motion. They operate at a very high level of efficiency, and seem to get the most out of the talent and ability they have on the field.

When MSU failed to get the ball into the Iowa end zone from inside the 5 yard line, Nichol and So. RB Glenn Winston’s absence was deeply felt. In a game of inches, sometimes injuries play a major role in big football games, and also in a conference title races. After Fr. RB Rock Baker finally broke one on the Hawks for 36 yards, MSU seemed finally poised for their first TD of the evening.

But Iowa stopped MSU four times inside the 5 yard line before MSU wisely settled for a Field Goal. Four times, because Iowa was flagged for an Offisdes penalty on the 1st down in that set. We know how Winston could’ve helped, but a healthy Nichol could’ve been a difference maker given his running and option ability. Given that Nichol was out, I was surprised MSU didn’t feature either Baker or Caper in the Wildcat formation.

If you’re committed to run it anywhere inside the 5, why not snap it directly to a RB and utilize the extra blocker? After Cousins handed the ball off, he was essentially out of those plays. And any threat of him passing when it got to second and third down seemed very unlikely. When you’re in the Wildcat, you have all eleven players active in the whole play. For example, there was a slight hole initially on Baker’s 3rd down run, but by the time the handoff was completed, the hole had already begun to close up. Baker couldn’t get there soon enough, and MSU came up with only 3 points.

By the time MSU took a 6-3 lead early in the 3rd, they probably should’ve been up 7-10 points more. Instead they were only up by a frail 3. Those missed opportunities probably did as much to lose this game as any bad or suspect Referee call in the 4th.  As Baker and Caper continue to develop at MSU, look for the Coaches to consider featuring them out of the Wildcat down by the goal line, as not to leave another four points that close to opponents’ Goal Line again.

Still, this MSU team looked so different from the one that struggled early in 2009. They appeared destined for a “program” victory at home over a Top 10 team on a nighttime National TV stage. As the game moved into the 4th, the QB poise and experience Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz had commented on earlier in the week began to appear and affect the outcome of the game.

Stanzi made key plays in Iowa’s 4th quarter comeback, such as changing a 3rd and 6 play call at the line. Stanzi made an adjustment in the run play’s direction, and in doing so, exposed an opening in the Spartan Defense. The result was a relatively big run and key Iowa 1st down, which gave their drive a chance to continue and left open the opportunity for a TD. That’s the kind of play an experienced QB can make that has a real impact on the outcome, but doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The Spartan Nation saw a bunch of those in the last two years with Brian Hoyer under center, though some fans didn’t realized or appreciate their true impact.

Calls of the Year?

The call of the game happened on a 2nd and 7 at the 7:15 mark of the 4th quarter, when Spartan Sr. DB Jeremy Ware was hit with a 15 yard Personal Foul, nearly a decade after the play had ended. Ware had an outstanding night, and is having a much improved Sr. season. But he was robbed tonight by a momentum snatching call that greatly changed the last half of the 4th quarter.

Ware played the little dump pass well, and timed the big hit perfectly. It was somewhat reminiscent of Nehemiah Warrick’s ’07 Wisconsin hit, in that it was legal but vicious. To Ware’s credit, he was trying to make the tackle first. In fact, he nearly caused a fumble. The big hit and injury were an afterthought, not the inspiration for the play. Ware did not clearly lead with the helmet, and the Iowa receiver was not in a defenseless position. Therefore, according to Spartan Radio Network Analyst and ex-QB Jim Miller, there could be no Helmet-to-Helmet contact 15 yard Personal Foul call. The call was horrible and absolutely inexcusable. Luckily the Hawkeye receiver appeared to be okay, but honestly, if he had sprung right up after the hit, there would’ve been no penalty called. And that’s not what should determine a Personal Foul call on that type of hit.

To be honest, the Big Ten officials have had a pretty bad year. That was just a big call on the conference’s biggest stage today that was not Big Ten caliber. There were maybe a handful of others tonight too, that played way too great a role in determining tonight’s winner. That’s too bad for both teams involved. The Big Ten needs to do better, and needs to do better as quickly as possible. There’s too much on the line to have an Official overreact and gaffe out a call like Ware’s Personal Foul.

That play was a huge momentum changer. Had MSU gotten off the field after the subsequent 3rd down, which was more than likely, there might have never been a chance for a heartbreaking loss at the 00:00 mark. The game could’ve been in hand by that point. Yet, the officials took that opportunity away, and thus played too big a role in deciding the game’s outcome.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, could the officials have really missed an Iowa fumble on the MSU 2 yard line? Iowa Fr. RB Brandon Wegher took a handoff to the 2, but appeared to fumble before going down. Watching the play live, it appeared by Jr. LB Eric Gordon’s reaction that MSU had recovered. The ball appeared to be out clean, and appeared to be recovered by the Spartans. Sensing the game hanging in the balance, MSU took a timeout, presumably to give replay officials time to review the call. Either they reviewed it and decided it was correct on the field, or completely missed the boat again. Surprisingly, it did not initially appear the play had been officially reviewed by replay.

Announcers on the Big Ten Network and the Spartan Radio Network were of the opinion that it was a fumble and that MSU had clearly recovered. Now, just because those four broadcasters thought it was a monster turnover for MSU doesn’t mean the Refs got it wrong. But it does suggest it should’ve been reviewed carefully, and wasn’t. Even after the TO, I was betting the farm that before the next down, play would be stopped so the fumble could be completely reviewed and either confirmed or reversed. There was simply too much at stake there. That kind of play is exactly why replay is in the Big Ten, and why replay can work. I hope we do not find out in the coming days that there really was a fumble on that play and the ball should’ve gone to MSU. That would only further tarnish a game currently blemished by key Referee gaffes at important moments.

Second Half Crescendo

Thanks to the potential missed fumble call and subsequent Iowa FG, the Spartans took the final kickoff with less than 3:00 on the clock, all the way to the MSU 40. But on the next two plays, they took it backwards to the MSU 32. After a TO, MSU called for a play that required a beautiful blend of luck, execution, and timing.

Perhaps the “hook and lateral/ladder” doesn’t work often enough in college football these days because it’s only called as a last ditch effort. MSU used it in a different role tonight, and made that thing look great. So. TE Brian Linthicum caught Cousins’ pass about 11 yards out, then flipped it to Sr. WR Blair White, who scampered for 27 more, taking it all the way down to the Iowa 30. In a game that didn’t feature many long gains, MSU was suddenly thrilled with momentum and looking to finally close the deal.

Yet, youth might have popped up its ugly head here again as it did in a similar situation against Notre Dame earlier this year, as the Spartans were forced to burn their final TO. MSU badly could’ve used another TO on the subsequent game winning Iowa drive. At this time, I’m not sure exactly why that final TO was used there, but it did not appear by first choice. It appeared to be by necessity, to avoid an impending procedural or delay of game penalty call. The final TO’s absence would be felt as the Spartans tried to protect a 13-9 lead with 1:37 to go.

But before that, Rs.-So. Captain Kirk Cousins would make a wonderful dance in pocket, feel enough space around him, and float out a somewhat improvised pass to Sr. Captain Blair White for a TD that sent the Spartan Nation into quite a frenzy. This play was the stuff of Magic (pun intended), and the stuff of Big Ten Champions. From the Iowa 30 with the Big Ten lead on the line, Cousins looked to redeem himself for the Notre Dame interception earlier this year. And he slid up the learning curve tonight by engineering the trick play, and then TD pass to take the lead on Iowa yet again. But the Spartans couldn’t hold it.

To blitz on 4th and the game, or not to blitz? That was the question. In their final goal line stand, the Spartans blitzed on the last two plays. The first one worked out, as Sr. DB Kendell Davis-Clark broke up Stanzi’s pass with five seconds left. But somehow 2 ticks remained still, and on 4th down, after the Hawks used their last TO, MSU decided to blitz again. Poised and throwing relatively uncontested, Stanzi found So. WR Marvin McNutt for the game winning and backbreaking score.

After sitting in what looked like a Prevent Defense for most of the last drive, Spartan Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi decided to bring heat there at the end. This decision has been questioned hundreds of times already, I presume. I’m not sure it was the wrong call, but I write this still surprised that no Spartan defender jumped at the line in hopes of knocking down Stanzi’s last gasp effort. Did the rushers really think they’d get home before he released the final pass? Did they think he’d take that much time given the circumstances?

Given the position on the field and the formation Iowa was in, I was a bit surprised Narduzzi put his top CB, Jr. Chris L. Rucker, out alone on such a short island. I was surprised there was no help at all, given the down and distance, and reality that no Spartan rush was going to get to Stanzi before he threw. He was at least going to get a pass in the air. No one dropped back to disrupt passing lanes, and no one thought to stand up and try to block a pass they had to know was coming quick.

I expected to see at least one or two Spartans back off the line, stand up, and possibly jump up or throw a hand out into a passing lane. You never know, the ball might find your hand or arm on its own. But maybe I was just warped in mind after having watched a kid on Alabama throw his hands up and block two straight FG attempts (still hard to believe) to win that game. But I admit I’m not a football coach, and I only write based on the game I just saw and the limited knowledge it provides to form an initial opinion. These decisions and calls will thoroughly be debated for a while here in the Spartan Nation.

It just looked a bit too easy at the end for Iowa. What happened to the Spartans’ base defense that had held Iowa without a TD to that point? Was it really abandoned on the last drive, or upon further review, did the Hawkeyes happen to make real adjustments just in time for their game winning drive? The setup and blitz left Stanzi really with only one man to beat, on a relatively elementary slant pattern. Again, I’m not sure the blitz was the wrong call, but the execution was perhaps a bit suspect. The Spartans’ Defense seemed to make a touchdown more likely, rather than less. That one really hurt.

Seriously, Now What?

The season’s peak arrived tonight late in the 4th quarter. Had MSU gone on to hook and lateral their way over Iowa and into 1st place in the Big Ten, who knows what would’ve happened from there. Now, they are a 4-4 football team with a lot still to play for. In reality, a look at the Big Ten title is now highly unlikely, and not really a first concern. MSU must first circle the wagons and try to again become a winning team by beating Minnesota next week on the road. From there, MSU must secure a third straight season’s Bowl eligibility by beating Western Michigan. If they can wrap that up and stand at 6-4, MSU will need to beat either Purdue on the road or Penn St. at home to secure a third straight winning season. If the Spartans can finish the regular season at 7-5, or even 8-4 , it would be pretty impressive given all that’s happened thus far in 2009, and all that happened tonight with the Officials, and the Iowa Hawkeyes.

15-13 Iowa, in sadly another “woulda…coulda…(shakes head) we shoulda won that game!”