Michigan State seemed to be turning on cruise control late Saturday night in Minneapolis. LJ Scott took a toss and followed his blockers into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown, seemingly erasing his earlier fumble. It put the Spartans ahead, 30-13 in the second half. Just as the defense was being heralded for overcoming turnovers and dominating the Minnesota Golden Gophers, they faltered and almost threw the game away. Ultimately Michigan State withstood the Gophers’ late rally and won 30-27.
Spartans Start Strong
The Spartans were clearly the better team for four quarters, as their offensive line rolled over the inexperienced Gopher defense. Scott returned from his absence last week and ran for 194 yards on 22 carries and 2 touchdowns. Understudy Madre London carried for 74 yards and a score himself. The defense was completely dominant for three quarters. They forced two turnovers and limited the Gophers to less than 175 total yards up to the last few minutes.
Going into the game it was clear that the Spartans were more talented than the Golden Gopher program in transition under first-year coach PJ Fleck. The question was how they would respond emotionally after the high in Ann Arbor last Saturday night, facing another hostile crowd under the lights, but without perhaps the personal fire to match it.
Weather once again played a starring role. The game start was delayed by 35 minutes due to lightning in the Minneapolis area. Perhaps the storm conditions snapped the Spartans back to attention. Apart from a fumbled punt, they came out of the tunnel ready to deliver a beatdown. The Spartans dominated the first quarter. Even though the scoreboard read 10-6, they showed superiority on both sides of the trenches. The Spartans effectively utilized wide tosses and off-tackle power runs with both backs to keep the Gopher defense pinned firmly on its heels.
Troubled By Turnovers
The turnover bug and the red zone inefficiency bug had an offspring, as the Spartans coughed the ball up three times and had four (four!) red zone drives that did not result in touchdowns. The most frustrating part of the game was how available it was, how inviting it was to Minnesota, as even though MSU was dominant, it was not reflected in the scoreline nearly enough for comfort.
After Scott fumbled for the 5th time this season (not a misprint), the Gophers scored to cut the game to 23-13. The Spartans’ response was emphatic, driving 45 yards on 4 plays to increase the margin to 17. This game had all the makings of a comfortable road victory, something to look at as a real positive. Not allowing the Michigan victory to overwhelm the task at hand, and a comfortable 5-1 record would be a real coup. So much for that narrative.
Minnesota backup quarterback Demry Croft led two 10-play drives. Both finished with touchdown strikes to Tyler Johnson. That allowed the Gophers to close the gap to 30-27 with 1:06 remaining. MSU recovered the onside kick to preserve the victory. But from a coaching point of view, the damage had been done. MSU is talented enough, and had played well enough, to stomp on the necks of the Gophers. That they didn’t, is a function of the team’s youth. There are a ludicrous 24 underclassmen on the two-deep. It is also a function of the team’s lack of killer instinct.
Like it or not, the underclassmen have not experienced what it’s like to be on a 12-2 College Football Playoff team. They only have this season, and some have the 3-9 nightmare of a year ago. They must find their footing in a place where expectations are high. Next week is homecoming, and the expectation will be a convincing performance against Indiana. This program should not settle for anything less.
Detroit radio host Mike Valenti referred to the young Spartans as a day care center this past week. Time for them to grow up. Teams must be buried. Head coach Mark Dantonio knows that, and this message will, I am sure, be imparted into the team this week. The Spartans are 5-1. Gone is the shadow of last season, and the November 4 visit from Penn St draws ever closer. On the banks of the Red Cedar, the Spartans are moving up in the world.