Circling Sparty

It’s no secret in recent years that the ‘Cats-Iowa game has received an uptick in attention by both fan bases. Winning consistently against a specific opponent will do that, particularly when the ranked team most years gets upset.  The recent changing of the guard of the Illini brass combined with back-to-back losses to our in-state “rival” have given rise to that game as well. However, there are two games on the schedule that give Northwestern fans pause now, after years of frustrating losses – Penn State and Michigan State. Northwestern has beaten Penn State just three times since the Nittany Lions joined the league, trailing only Ohio State for bragging rights by an opponent “owning” us. Matt McGloin in particular has chosen his one shining moment each year to be against Northwestern and unfortunately for us he’s back again this year. However, when it comes to circling a game on the schedule this season, I’ve got Sparty.

Yesterday, a business colleague of mine (Michigan State grad) mentioned to me that he happened to catch the re-run of the 2006 Michigan State comeback over Northwestern. As we all know, Northwestern set an infamy mark for biggest blown lead in a DI game, losing after holding a 38-3 lead with nine minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. It is amazing how little I recall in that game after Nick Roach broke his leg and time seemed to stand still. If not for CJ Bacher’s 500+ passing performance in 2007 (our last win over Michigan State), I’d point to Roach’s broken leg as some kind of mythical moment where we lost our mojo against a program. Perhaps it is because of the way we’ve lost some of the games during the Fitz era that has caused a borderline gag reflex when you see the Spartan green on the schedule, but man, I want our Michigan State mojo back. If you’re like me, the instant scan of our schedule and spotting Sparty now equates to “loss”. I want to change that feeling.

We seem to play Michigan State at make-or-break moments in our season and, they have found a way to crush our souls. Granted, the 2006 season was a lost season as Fitz was thrust in to a head coaching job just weeks before the season as he had to piece together a team that had been devastated by the death of Randy Walker. We entered that nightmare of a game at 2-6 and you could argue the embarassment of that loss helped us motivate for the upset win at Iowa the following week and finish the ’06 season winning two of three (Illinois as well).

 We mentioned the 2007 game in East Lansing, a thrilling 48-41 OT win highlighted by the brilliant play of CJ Bacher and an honorable game by back-up RB Omar Conteh who replaced the injured Tyrell Sutton. That was Mark Dantonio’s first season.  He’s gone perfect against Northwestern since then.

The 2008 match-up against Sparty was a major letdown. Northwestern had opened the season 5-0 and we were ranked #22 in the nation hosting #19 Michigan State. The first letdown was the incredibly awful turnout for that game. It’s one that I think likely cost the marketing director her job at the time. There were 17,000 empty seats on a gorgeous day featuring two top 25 teams. One of them never showed up. The ‘Cats, with no disrespect to Plaxico, shot themselves in the foot, turning the ball over twice deep in our own territory and while we made a second half spurt, we were too far in the hole to recover in a 37-20 Michigan State win that was never really close. We would go on to win nine games that year, so this game hardly derailed our season, but the momentum had built that day and we were poised to get the Fitz bandwagon going as the media attention was pretty high (I remember the front page Trib sports was an expose on our poor attendance the day before that game).

A year later we returned to Spartan Stadium to face an underachieving edition of a Dantonio team. The ‘Cats entered the game at 4-2 and seemed to be on the brink of busting open a good-to-great season. This is where I vividly remember our “D” biting on play-action after play-action and Blair White just teeing off on us in the second half. NU had played stellar “D” all half heading to the lockerroom up 7-0, but the wheels came off late in the game and Michigan State maintained control and won 24-14. As you know, the ‘Cats would win eight games and go to the Outback Bowl and finish one game ahead of Michigan State in the Big Ten standings. This was one of those coin flip games against a middle of the pack teams that you need to get to have a great year and we came up short again.

2010 was yet another dagger to Northwestern fans. Michigan State rolled in to Evanston undefeated, yet ranked only #8 in the nation. The ESPN College Gameday crew was already in national title speculation mode and few gave NU a chance in this one. The ‘Cats were coming off yet another deflating performance after achieving ranked status, losing under the lights at home to a weak Purdue team to drop to 5-1 and fall from the rankings. Still not a sellout against undefeated Sparty, but the nearly 42,000 were buzzing in Evanston. Dan Persa put on a clinic and staked NU to a 17-0 lead late in the first half. Spartan fans were beyond fidgety, but you know a comeback was coming.  With the ‘Cats up 10 in the fourth quarter and a stiff wind blowing to the north, a fourth and six forced Sparty to punt. Dantonio infamously set up “mousetrap” and took a delay of game penalty, presumably to get a better shot at pinning us deep in our own territory. NU had done its homework and had seen the fake punt against Notre Dame earlier in the year and had our punt fake protect in place. Yet, Aaron F-in Bates, the punter, threw a 15-yard pass to Bennie F-in Fowler as Jordan Mabin simply turned the wrong way on the fake.  One play later, an amazing Sparty TD and despite being down only three, you had that sense that Sparty would once again emerge with a crushing win. They did. Michigan State scored 21 4th quarter points to escape 35-27 and would go on to finish 11-1 before losing their bowl game. NU would get to 7-3 before losing Dan Persa to the Achilles injury and then we dropped our final two games badly before falling short to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl.

Can we make this stop, please? Deep breath. 2011. Northwestern hosted Sparty again in one of those schedule quirk games to finish the season.  NU was 6-5,3-4 and hoping to not continue a disturbing decline in year-to-year win totals. Michigan State had clinched the Legends Division title and was already set to head to Indy regardless of the outcome of our game. Northwestern fans hoped that Sparty would pull up because the game was less important than if they were playing for the division title. Think again. Well, kind of. Northwestern opened the game just bullying the Spartans off the line. It was eye-opening how much we were pounding them on the opening drive.  The final two minutes of the first half proved to be more of the Sparty curse. Treyvon Green fumbled at the Sparty goalline and before you could blink MSU put up 14 points to force a potential 21-point swing and we were done. Down 17-3 at the half, MSU got their mojo and our offensive line got manhandled in the second half as Dan Persa would get sacked six times. It was a raw, wet, miserable day reflecting the game and outcome.

Simply put, Northwestern and Michigan State were seemingly two programs that were on the exact same trajectory when you overlay Dantonio and Fitzgerald’s collective work. Both programs were competing head to head for recruits in 2008 and 2009 regularly and the two seemed to be vying for upper tier status. Sparty has continued to rise, while Northwestern has stayed in the middle of the pack. The Spartans have gone 22-5 in their last 27 games, own the 7th most wins in nation the past two seasons and are coming off a school record win total (11) as Dantonio boasts the most wins in the first five seasons (44) by a landslide in MSU history. Their play in East Lansing is even more impressive which should give ‘Cats fans pause as we play in East Lansing on senior day in the Spartans’ home finale on November 17 this year.

Michigan State has won 14 straight games in Spartan Stadium trailing only LSU (17), Wisconsin (16), and NIU (15) in that category. More importantly the Spartans boast a defense that many of us thought Fitz would develop at this juncture in his tenure. The Spartans return eight starters on a defense that was the best in the B1G last season. They litter the NCAA top ten statistical categories after a season in which they gave up a B1G best 100 ypc on the ground and a measley 277 total yards per game of offense. MSU was sixth in the NCAA in total defense, seventh in sacks (which we helped bolster), ninth in rush defense, 10th in scoring defense and 11th in pass defense. You get the point – they are loaded on “D”. Their LB corps is formidable with Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones anchoring the “D”. William Gholston, the terrorizing DE is back and much improved Johnny Adams and Isaiah Lewis hold down the secondary.

If you’re looking for good news then you have to look at the offense. Michigan State lost most of their offense with Kirk Cousins graduating along with ‘Cat-killing WRs Keshawn Martin, BJ Cunningham and Keith Nichol along with a pair of tight ends. The Spartans return most of the OL, however, and RBs Le’veon Bell and Larry Caper return. Andrew Maxwell is now the signal-caller for MSU and the bad news for NU fans on offense is that in mid-November he and the offense will have a full season under their belt. You’d love to play this much of an overhauled offense early in the season. Regardless, by nearly any prediction Sparty will be well on their way to a sixth straight bowl and hoping to be in the Big Ten title hunt if their “D” can carry them.  I want this one – badly. We play them on the back half of two straight road trips to the state of Michigan before our home finale against Illinois. It’s one that is at the top of my win wish list for 2012 – how about you?

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  • vaudvillain

    After the buildup in the comments section yesterday about this post, I’m glad to see it. Absolutely spot-on. I definitely want to reverse our miserable trends against Michigan State and Penn State…and, for that matter, bowl games. The observation of the respective D’s is also true — as much as I love Fitz, when he took over as HC, I was expecting to see us become a much more defense-minded team. And — so far, at least — that simply hasn’t happened.

  • Philip Rossman-Reich

    A few notes:

    My memory of the 2008 game at Ryan Field was a little different. I was not focused on the paid attendance that game (as a student, and someone covering that game that afternoon). But the 2008 game was incredibly well attended by the students (the best I had seen pre-Jim Phillips). There was a lot of energy on campus about that game, and, honestly, I think everyone was a lot more disappointed about the remainder of the season because of how the team performed that day.

    Also, Plaxico Burress = Michigan State alumnus.

  • yeah…

    partial reason for this is Dantonio realizes how great of a program we are and gets his players up for the game, hence the “ownage”. until teams realize that NU is a legitimate threat, we will continue to win games that we “shouldn’t win”, and until Fitz learns in game management coaching, we will lose games that we shouldn’t.

  • bandcat

    Illini Nite at the Cell looked anemic. Is NU having a promotional nite at the Cell this season?

  • Jimgocats93

    As you might guess I have been watching NU since 1993.

    MSU has been, in the past, the least disciplined, most underachieving team in the BIG. Including when now National Champ Nick Sabin was there. But Dantonio has tamed the beast. They are just flat out damn good.

    We beat them in the past by out preparing and being disciplined. Now we will have to rise to there level period!
    We can do it!


  • cardiac_cat_fan

    Watching MSU games and Penn State games have given me ulcers the past couple years because of the leads NU has let slip away in loss. Sadly, the MSU and Penn State games have been part of a much larger trend of blown leads. I hope Fitz is able to work with both of his coordinators about play calling with the lead. I’ve gotten the sense too many times the ‘cats have taken their foot off the pedal with a decent lead built up (run-run-pass play calling). I have faith the ship will be righted in the near future.

  • GradCat

    Great post, but can we stop putting the word rival in parentheses when referring to the Illini? We need to start treating it as a legitimate rivalry now. Quoting it makes it look like we can’t believe it’s actually happening.