The Day of Judgment arrived on Saturday—and in the white-hot fires of holy war, a new Spartan team was forged.
After taking care of business against the lesser foes, winning miraculously against Notre Dame, and handling Wisconsin, the Spartans were burdened with the heavy weight of expectations. At 5-0, they had reached a tipping point: beat Michigan, and they would ascend to the ranks of the legitimately undefeated. Beat Michigan, and they could start down the gilded, downhill slope that is the Spartans’ back half of the schedule. Beat Michigan, and they would write Chapter Six of what might be the most epic tale of Spartan football ever told.
The armor of expectations is a telling test of strength: if the body is too weak to wear it, it’s a burden, an anchor that clunks and slows and drags. Many times I have seen the team win early, be girded with the breastplate and gauntlets, and collapse. But Saturday, the Spartans wore the expectations like the armor they are. The Spartans were protected by the knowledge they were good enough to win, and strengthened by the confidence that knowledge gave them. They did not panic when the opponent made early advances, but held firm and took over the game. They did not stumble and trip like a teenager—they strode calmly and confidently, like men, into Michigan Stadium. They walked out having defeated “The Victors.”
Let me be clear about this: Michigan is a very good team. Their offense is legitimately potent; they definitely had chances to score more points than they did. Further, their defense bottled up the Spartans’ running game for far longer than I thought they would. Before the season, I thought Michigan was a seven-win team; today I expect them to win eight, or possibly nine games. They are a very good football team, and it is a fine feather in MSU’s helmet to have beaten them in Ann Arbor.
Second: Denard Robinson is a very good player. I don’t believe that he’s a great quarterback, nor that he is the most outstanding player in the nation. But he is very good—and despite myself, I’m geniunely rooting for the kid. He seems to be humble, classy, a great teammate—and he is undeniably very talented. If what you, Dear Reader, are trying to take away from this game is that “Denard sucks,” or “Denard choked,” you’re wrong. Against Michigan State, Denard was exactly what he is and has been: extremely fast, extraordinarily difficult to contain, lethal on a zone read, always a danger to break one long, an inconsistent decision-maker and an inaccurate downfield thrower.
Against Indiana, that gets you 10 of 16 for 277, 3 TDs, no INTs, and 217 yards rushing. Against Michigan State, that gets you 17 of 29 for 215, 1 TD and 3 INTs, and 86 yards rushing.
The missed wide-open touchdown pass to Stonum is exactly what I’m talking about. Forget Sammy Baugh’s legendary “swinging tire” he threw through for practice, Robinson had a stationary side-of-a-barn he needed to throw that ball through to score a significant early touchdown, and he couldn’t do it. Another example? In the third quarter, the Wolverines were down by two scores, and had 2nd-and-9 from the Spartan 13-yard-line. Denard rolled to his right, no rush, and saw his outside receiver squat in a hole in the zone, just past the sticks. With a ten-yard pitch-and-catch, the Wolverines convert, and possibly score. Instead, Denard fires it into the turf, several feet shy of his target—he one-hopped a critical ten-yard pass. The next attempt was intercepted in the end zone; instead of bringing it to within one score, the game slipped away.
This is what drives me crazy about Denard, Culpepper, Vick, Tebow, or any of the quarterbacks who’ve worked fans and media up into a blithering lather with athletic highlights. In order to beat good defenses, quarterbacks have to consistently make good reads, good decisions, and good throws at great speed. Denard Robinson isn’t currently capable of that—and the jury’s still out on whether he ever will be.
However, he won’t need to beat good defenses very often! There simply aren’t many of them around—and the schedule is gerry-rigged so that he’ll face as few of them as possible. Ergo, even if Denard’s never any more than what he is, the Wolverines will win eight or so games every year he’s under center. That was why I decried the hype surrounding Denard—not because I thought he was a bad player, but that I thought he was a good one. Denard deserves to be celebrated as a good player—not propped up as a great one, then denigrated when he falls short! His frame can’t bear the weight of championship expectations just yet.
No, that weight—and that armor—rests on Sparty’s broad shoulders now. The battle-hardened, flame-forged Spartans march on to meet their destiny, knowing their mettle is a match for anyone’s.
Hello everyone, my name is Jim and I am addicted to Spartan Sports.
It all started back in Fall of 1998 in my first semester at MSU. I had moved onto campus a few weeks earlier and was going through the slog of the freshmen required courses. I remember the day my addiction began, it was September 12th, 1998. We played the Fightin' Irish and it was the first weekend I was staying on campus.
Now the thing you should know about Bailey Hall in 1998 is that it was full of geeks. The hall had a science and engineering focus to it at the time, the collective knowledge of Star Wars Trivia far outweighed what existed in the fictional Star Wars Universe. I had hardly watched football at all prior to this, and so I turned on the game because I could hear the stadium off in the distance.
This was the day we beat Notre Dame, and we didn't just beat them, we crushed them. The halftime score was 42-3. But even more importantly yet, I started out watching the game in my room and gravitated down the hall to meet my fellow floormates for what eventually turned into a college career of good times with friends featuring oat sodas.
My enjoyment of MSU sports is tied deeply to many experiences that highlight my time in college and a few that are highlights in my life. In 1999, my friends and I camped outside of Spartan Stadium for the front few rows of the U of M game. In 2000, I was pulled over for 48 in a 25 and not issued a ticket because we had just won this game. In 2004, we pummeled Wisconsin in a game we had no business winning. In 2005, I propsed to my wife at the MSU-Hawaii rematch. In 2008, my two week old daughter was present for the stop against Shonn Greene and the Hawkeyes. In a week from tomorrow my second daughter will be present for what should be a snoozer against Illinois.
As Ty said, this is my first blog. Bear with me and I will try to make my contributions part of what you enjoy about Spartan Sports.
Something I’ve always struggled with as a fan of football is when a player’s hype doesn’t match what I see to be his essential ability. I’ve ranted over at The Lions in Winter about how Daunte Culpepper’s “MVP Caliber” reputation followed him around for years, even when that “MVP Candidate” season led a remarkably talented team to an 8-8 record. I’ve ranted on The Fireside Chat that Michael Vick’s legendary elusiveness wouldn’t be needed if he could actually execute the offense well. I’ve gotten in endless quarrels about Kurt Warner’s Hall of Fame viability; to me a player who spent half of his career on the bench (or belonging there) has no business in the Hall. Believe you me, I’ve moaned and groaned on Twitter and elsewhere about Tim Tebow—the false quarterback prophet, whose role in the NFL will be primarily to sell jerseys.
Likewise, I still say that Barry Sanders never got his due—even as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, people are largely ignorant about just how remarkable he really is. I am completely mystified by Brett Favre being lucky to crack most people’s top ten all-time quarterback lists—when his name is at the top of the heap in every statistical category—and legendarily, he played with more heart and grit and gusto than any of them.
All of this is bad enough, but with today’s twenty-four hour sports media cycle, and the prevalence of blogs, podcasts, forums, Twitter, etc., once a thought takes root (i.e., “Vick barely beating the Lions means he’s a lock for the Pro Bowl”) it’s repeated over and over and over and expounded upon and analyzed and broken down and debated and parroted and #TT’d and #FF’d and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Such it is with “Shoelace,” the Denard Robinson phenomenon. It’s not that Denard is not talented; he unquestionably is. He’s extremely fast, has good vision, and runs in very well in open field. Unlike last season, he has excellent running lanes thanks to a mightily improved offensive line. Also, he’s gotten much better at throwing the ball. In fact, he’d have to have done so, if for no other reason than he couldn’t have gotten any worse: in 34 dropbacks last season, Denard was sacked three times, threw four interceptions, and completed 14 passes for only 188 yards.
Clearly, though, he’s taken a big step forward—and so have his teammates, and so have his coaches. Denard’s statistical production has been simply incredible: he’s decimated several U of M single-game records, and Denard is on pace to demolish several NCAA FBS records, as well. However, he’s done this against UConn, Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana—and wasn’t uniformly incredible, as many currently believe. Even with Indiana’s doormat conference status, cracks in the Shoelace facade began to grow. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the Wolverines had to punt three consecutive times—thanks to a Denard run that came up short, and two poorly-thrown incompletions.
Yes, the drive after that was the game-winning drive, and Denard scored the game winning touchdown. But this was Indiana; it didn’t need to be nearly as close as it was—and if Denard were truly a Dilithium-based lifeform, he wouldn’t need four bites at Indiana’s apple to get the one touchdown he needed. It’s exactly that kind of Culpepperian first-quarter awesome, fourth-quarter not-so-awesome that makes people who don’t look past the box score repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Part of the problem here is the bed that the NCAA, its conferences, and its member institutions have made—the one that we are forced to lie in. The college rankings (and postseason) have always been awarded based on number of losses: Undefeated = “National Champion”, 1 loss = “Great Bowl”, 2 losses = “Good Bowl”, etc. The pressure to reduce the number of losses has forced every team into a race for the scheduling bottom. Teams schedule tomato cans they have absolutely no intention of losing to for three, and sometimes four, nonconference games out of four—and conferences have created unbalanced schedules, bye weeks, and division splits to make sure nobody even kind-of decent faces a strong test more than two or three times a year.
The upshot of this? Nothing that happens in September really matters. The whole first month of college football is completely immaterial. Except for a preseason national title favorite losing to an FCS school (e.g., “The Horror”), there is no single loss that can’t be overcome, and likely no single win that will mean as much as people think it does (e.g., “Boise State beat VT, they are now the prohibitive favorite to win the BCS Championship, unless they lose to Oregon State”). Let me underscore that: the college football season, as it currently exists, is designed to make sure everybody looks good, especially in September. If your team doesn’t look great in September, your team is horrible—and even if your team does look great in September, that doesn’t mean it is not horrible.
In the intervening three games between Denard’s coming-out party against Notre Dame and tomorrow’s Big Chill, Michigan has done nothing other than beat teams they were nearly assured of beating—and Denard has done nothing other than continue to break long runs, be really fast and get people to repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Unfortunately, while this schedule has given Denard—and Michigan—a great platform for success and exposure, it’s also robbed them of the ability to really legitimately crow about it. Until Denard looks amazing against multiple better-than-average BCS-conference teams, doubts will continue to be cast upon his achievements. The NCAA’s schedule dilution ensures that everybody looks at least pretty good for most of the year, and it keeps fans keep buying tickets and coaches employed—but in the process, true greatness is obfuscated.