Coming into the 2010 campaign, Michigan State had a chip on its shoulder. Previously, Mark Dantonio’s teams were known for winning the games they had to and getting crushed by those who were elite.
That was until the roller-coaster 6-7 season of 2009 halted the program into questioning itself when they lost a few games they shouldn’t have (Central Michigan for one) and continued to not be competitive against the big dogs of the conference.
Even the normally bubbly and health-conscious (look at those abs, baby!) Sparty could be found at the MSU Dairy Store drowning his sorrows in a pint of Sesquicentennial Swirl.
This year, they had to prove they could win and collect an elite season amidst a padded, near cakewalk schedule, an experienced returning team with a plethora of talent and a down year for Michigan and Notre Dame. Anything less than nine wins would be embarrassing, and no doubt 10 wins served as par.
With that standard set, the Spartans marched forward exceeding expectations. The games were not pretty, and arguably at times the team didn’t look much different from the 6-7 team the year before, except for that all-important end result...a win.
Eleven of them to be exact, a conference title (shared), one of the most memorable endings in Spartan history and an elite bowl game against one of the best teams in college football. Not bad for a team picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten.
Let’s take a more organized look, wrapping up the year that was for the Spartans...
Biggest win: Really, the only complete, 60-minute football game this team played was the 34-24 drubbing of Wisconsin. I say drubbing because MSU was able to overcome two early Kirk Cousins turnovers and really ratchet up the defense, clamping Wisconsin down to 127 passing yards.
Biggest loss: The avalanche of horse manure that took place in Iowa City. Yikes stripes. The Spartans didn’t even show up against Iowa, and it made me very sad. 37-6, and it wasn't even that close.
Strengths: Balance. Mark Dantonio reached his opus of balance in his fourth year at Michigan State. The hard-nosed running game opened up the play-action passing game for the talented receiving corps and sniper-like accuracy of Kirk Cousins. The defense also evened out some rough edges of the past and made plays when they had to. All in all, one of the most balanced Spartan teams in recent memory.
Weaknesses: The lines. Oh, the lines. I really hope Dantonio has a plan for the offensive line, because what was witnessed at the Alabama game was...not safe. Legitimately not safe for the Spartan players, and I say this with no exaggeration or sarcasm. It was like the Monty Python sketch with the teachers playing the students in rugby. The Crimson Tide made the Spartans look silly in the trenches. This must be addressed with immediate urgency.
Most memorable moment: Little Giants, without hesitation, will be entrenched in Spartan folklore forever. What a great opening to the new series with Brian Kelly and the ND Fighting Irish. It’s one of those moments that Spartan fans will remember the EXACT location and EXACT thought process as it all went down.
Team MVP: Aaron Bates. Yes, the punter. Undoubtedly much of what held the Spartans together was in the locker room. Bates is one of the very few punters in the nation ever to be captain of a football team. He was a great punter, putting up respectable stats (45 yards a punt) amongst the best in the game at the position.
He also completed the above memorable moment and a fake that was the turning point in the Northwestern rally to victory—that just isn’t as well documented.
In a long line of great Spartan punters, Bates should go down as one of the most valuable.
Outlook for 2011: Positive, yet uncertain. The schedule will be much less forgiving. Seventeen seniors are graduating—a great deal of them at key positions like linebacker, wide receiver and on the much-maligned offensive line.
The one area not losing a graduating senior is the backfield. Quarterback Kirk Cousins and running backs Edwin Baker and Larry Caper should return with vim. If given time, Cousins is extremely accurate, smart and dangerous, and he stands to be a dynamic team leader. The near future leans on how he works with Dantonio to bring the Spartans together.
There is just something about winning that brings people together. It has been a very enjoyable year for Spartan nation. It’s hard to be critical of a team that broke records and gave the fans so much to be proud of.
However, there is still a long way to go. Unfortunately, the Skunkbears in Ann Arbor have taken the FIRST necessary step to right the ship. Notre Dame seems to be improving. Nebraska is now in the mix. This isn’t getting any easier anytime soon. The bowl game against Alabama wasn’t necessarily an embarrassment, but it did expose a huge weakness and was a wake-up call for improving the Spartans' line play.
All in all, this season will increase the standard for next season. These same Spartans that found ways to win games this year will have to do so again at a higher level next year, as the echelon of expectations will be raised. The team will be better in 2011, but it will have to be.
Winning close games has a tendency to even out, and those breaks went toward the Green and White all year long in 2010. Dantonio has done a great job bringing the program to a level of respectable consistency, but everyone is waiting for the Spartans to take that next step into the mid-elite.
When it comes to outlook for the offseason, Spartan fans can be optimistic about the future. I think Kevin Garnett said it best after winning a championship wearing a very familiar color scheme: “Anything is possible!”
If you like this piece, feel free to check out my blog, appropriately titled Ryan C. Zerfas, at http://ryanczerfas.blogspot.com/