Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Fall of Sparta

(Note: I originally had this posted as an op-ed on the blog, Maize n' Brew, but the editor deemed it too controversial. To spare him any more headaches, and because this blog is independent, I've posted it here.)

A few days ago, on Friday, October 19, the day before the Michigan vs. Michigan State game, Chris Vannini of the Spartan blog "The Only Colors" wrote a highly-rec'd op-ed about his feelings concerning the outlook of the Michigan State program, ironically titling it "Hail to the Victors."

In it Vannini describes the personal journey of how he came to be a Michigan State fan. Like many children of football families in the suburbs of Detroit, where Michigan almost unilaterally holds dominion on local college football interest, much in the same way Red Wings dominate hockey and Tigers dominate baseball, he grew up rooting for the Maize and Blue. While in high school, he then made it his "No. 1 goal" to get into Michigan.

Unfortunately, like many who apply to Michigan, for whatever reason he received a deferring letter. He ended up picking Michigan State and subsequently writes a blog about Spartan football and how much he hates the Wolverines.

I know a similar story where a friend of mine named Jon had similar aspirations in high school, and in senior year of English class he read to us his application essay for Michigan, with the topic "Who do you most admire?" The person he most admired was his brother, a Michigan alumnus, and how he was a "Michigan Man."

It was shameless pandering, and it didn't work. Though rejected from Michigan, he received a football scholarship to Michigan State and played linebacker for four years under Mark Dantonio. Thanks to Dantonio's diplomatic Buckeye tutelage, Jon now claims to have been a "Spartan since birth," and when Michigan State defeated Michigan in 2010, securing their third consecutive win for the first time since 1967, he sent me a picture on Facebook with him and the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

"Three years in a row," the caption read. "I love beating these guys!"

It was probably at that moment when I lost a great deal of respect for Michigan State and for my friend. Because he came from a place where, like Vannini, his primary aspiration was getting into Michigan, and then to act as if he'd always been a Spartan, from then on I have firmly and unequivocally hated Michigan State.

I still respect people who grew up MSU fans, because they're being true to who they are. But to have all these deep allegiances to Michigan, go to MSU, and then start spewing hate about the team you used to root for as a child, that's not exactly classy.

(It should be noted, however, that Chris Vannini's willingness to admit his past with Michigan openly and honestly is admirable. Most Michigan State fans of that origin choose to deny it or keep it to themselves.)

Look, I get it. It must be really, really tough to be a Spartan. It must really suck to walk into biology class at MSU and see a fellow student wearing a Block-M sweatshirt. It must doubly suck to be told from a CMU grad that your MSU degree is meaningless. Even though Michigan State accepts more than four times as many applicants as does Michigan, and ten times as many from in-state, it's still not a bad school. It's not a community college.

It must also suck how Michigan gets all the national attention, and how every year a Wolverine wins the September Heisman. Except for this year, when Le'Veon Bell won it, and Michigan State was almost universally picked to compete again for the Big Ten championship--well, at least by everyone working at the Big Ten Network.

Yes, Michigan gets unfair attention when haven't necessarily deserved it, but so does Texas, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. They get that attention because of decades of success. A few years of struggling teams is not going to make them irrelevant overnight. No, you need decades of mediocrity to do that.

Even the most die-hard Spartan will tell you that John L. Smith created a losing culture in East Lansing. When Mark Dantonio came in and lost to Lloyd Carr in 2007, everyone thought it would be more of the same.

What Dantonio did to Michigan State's program is significant. He capitalized when Michigan was down, beating a weary Wolverine team in 2008, and squeaking out another win in 2009, which solidified him as Michigan State's coach of the future.

He also took advantage of the gaps in in-state recruiting that Rich Rodriguez left open for two years, who instead preferred to recruit nationally until pressured by program alums to scout talent closer to home. Those recruiting classes of 2007, 2008, and 2009 helped Dantonio to back-to-back 11-win seasons.

Then he got what every coach needs: a great quarterback. Among those crucial recruits was Kirk Cousins, who became Michigan State's winningest quarterback and is arguably its best quarterback of all time statistically. Likeable and well-spoken, intelligent and determined, Cousins became an icon for how great a Spartan could be. For the first time in a long time, there were a few Michigan fans who were jealous.

Cousins may be the classiest thing to ever come out of East Lansing, despite his 2011 post-game interview, where his celebratory remarks were strikingly similar to Mike Hart's in 2007. Michigan State loves them that trash talk, yo.

Since Cousins' departure, the Spartans obviously haven't been the same. We can now see what an impact Cousins made on his team, despite being a lowly 2-star coming out of high school (he was clearly underrated). Cousins' heir, Andrew Maxwell, has shown neither the poise nor the ability to rally his team the way his predecessor did.

Michigan State fans cite three reasons for the loss to Michigan: the offensive coordinator, Dan Roushar, the kicker, Dan Conroy, and the refs. However, all three of these are false.

While there may have been a few calls or non-calls that the referees made that were favorable to Michigan, and I see how Spartan fans would be upset with that, there were just as many calls that favored Michigan State. The most egregious example is when Le'Veon Bell fumbled and Michigan recovered it, but the officials ruled Bell down (when even the commentators saw it was an obvious fumble) and it wasn't even challenged.

Conroy's missed field goal in the first quarter did not decide the game. No field goal in the first quarter does. It was Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the end of the game that decided it.

Finally, Dan Roushar. The reason why Michigan State lost this game was not because of him; they lost because of Andrew Maxwell. It doesn't matter how good your offensive coordinator is when your quarterback is overthrowing wide-open receivers. There were several opportunities where Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphrey got separation from the Michigan cornerbacks but Maxwell was nowhere near on target.

The difference between Kirk Cousins and Andrew Maxwell should now be painfully apparent to Michigan State fans, despite many of them claiming that not only would Maxwell be as good as Cousins, he'd be better. Cousins played like a star quarterback. He led the team and rallied them when they needed it. Maxwell has played like he always has: like a back-up quarterback. He keeps the offense from completely imploding but makes no strides to take control of the game.

If Maxwell is the first reason why Michigan State lost, Michigan's defense is almost certainly the second. Michigan State fans refuse to acknowledge this.

"Honestly with any other offensive coordinator in division one, we are a better team," said one Michigan State fan. I can sympathize that Roushar's 2-and-10 pass on MSU's final drive that ended in a punt when Michigan had no timeouts was hardly the best call, and if one call did lose the game for Michigan State from their standpoint, that was probably it. However, it was Michigan's defense, not Michigan State's offensive coordinator, that was the prevailing force in why the Spartans lost on Saturday.

It was even more crushing because this, the Michigan game, was Michigan State's season. With two conference losses, one to Ohio State and one to Iowa, Spartans already knew that they weren't going to compete for the Big Ten title this year. Which SpartanDan pointed out after the loss to Iowa:

The division race is pretty much over for us.
Even if we win out, we'd need at least two (possibly three) losses from Iowa and another one from Michigan. And winning out doesn't look at all likely at this point. Missing out on a bowl entirely is a possibility now, though I still think we probably get the last two to avoid that.

Michigan State didn't really have anything left to play for except the bragging rights against Michigan, and now even those are gone. The Spartans are 4-4 and are staring down the possibility of not even going to a bowl game--although this is severely unlikely.

As a Michigan alumnus, I obviously took great pride in seeing Michigan State lose after the sense of false accomplishment that gave them a momentary sense of entitlement. For all their continuous talk of being the underdog, the Spartans seemed like they finally hit the big leagues: they stopped hoping to win and started expecting to win.

Those feelings have evaporated now.

The once-proud Spartan football team is now a shell of its former self, and unless Dantonio can find him a new Kirk Cousins, who in my opinion is the type of quarterback that just doesn't come around very often, it's going to be more rough seasons for the Green and White. And with recruiting going as it is... (sorry, I couldn't resist.)

And make no mistake: this game is important to us Michigan fans. Anyone who tells you that it's not is clearly pulling your leg. Is it as important to us as it is to Michigan State? Not really. We don't obsess about it, but we do revel in it.

See you guys next year.

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