There are many fine traditions for Michigan State students to enjoy as the embers of summer cool into fall. One can share a kiss under the shadow of Beaumont Tower, paint the rock, or gorge on ice cream at the Dairy Store. The finest and most time-honored rite of passage, though, is to watch the football team play down to non-conference competition at Spartan Stadium.
It matters not if the supposed lamb being led to slaughter at the hands of big, bad Mark Dantonio & Co. is from the MAC, the FCS, or a newly formed directional online-only campus. Michigan State will let the visitor hang around for far too long. They will put their hands over an open flame until it starts to burn. Then they’ll keep it there a bit longer.
This bizarre and needless ritual was on full display Friday night as the Spartans needed all of 60 minutes to overcome a very game Utah State side, 38-31. A team with national championship aspirations needed a last minute touchdown from backup running back Connor Heyward to stave off disaster. It needed an all-world interception from Joe Bachie to save its bacon.
It’s easy to lose the plot when a 24-point favorite is pushed to the brink. And folks in East Lansing had all the right in the world to have their senses blurred by pure rage and shame. But in the sober light of morning it’s worth pointing out that this was a bizarre game.
Brian Lewerke was largely effective, completing 23 of 33 passes for 287 yards and two scores. Young receivers made big plays from start to finish. The defense held Utah State to 25 rushing yards on 25 attempts and came up with back-breaking turnovers when it mattered most.
MSU didn’t play great, but on balance far better than the Aggies. So why was this such a harrowing ordeal? A few plays and 50-50 calls amounted for a tremendous point swing.
Lewerke threw a groan-inducing pick-six on a late pass over the middle. He fumbled on a clear pass attempt which was never reviewed to set up a short field. Twice drives stalled after reaching the Aggies’ 1-yard line due to penalties. Two apparent touchdowns came off the board.
A win is a win but it was not a good night in East Lansing. Utah State joins the long list of programs to come into town and push MSU around until they realized it was a real fight.
Furman. Eastern Michigan. Western Michigan. Youngstown State. Florida Atlantic. These don’t include the lower-level Big Ten clubs that have scared a perennial contender by hanging around deep into the fourth quarter. That’s a different tradition.
At a certain point one wonders if this is just in the Spartans’ DNA. That they take the whole winning ugly thing a bit too literally. It has happened so many times that we’re left to think this is who they are.
And here’s the thing about that. It’s the very reason why there shouldn’t be a green- and white-knuckled overreaction this morning. This is what Michigan State does. The classic back-to-school gag where they sleepwalk through three hours of play before doing the bare minimum to get a passing grade.
You know, college stuff.
Harder exams loom. Maybe this team will round itself into shape. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. The thing about football is that these are pass-fail endeavors.
Michigan State passed its first. Barely.