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Friday, October 06, 2006

The Devil Speaks: Michigan State - Mental Illness, Bad Officiating, Fires

Frequent MZone contributor BaggyPantsDevil takes a look at the Michigan-Michigan State game.

Michigan State may not be the worst team in college football, but they are arguably the cruelest, especially to their fans. Few teams combine flashy offensive domination and heightened expectations with emotional meltdowns and flat out stupidity with as much bipolar drama as the Spartans. Rooting for Michigan State is not for the feint of heart, it’s an exercise in masochism, it’s probably a violation of international law and what the Spartans do on a fairly regular basis could be considered a crime against humanity. If not, it should be illegal to crush the spirits of so many Michigan State fans the way the Spartans do.

Although Ohio State is Michigan’s biggest rival—both in terms of the intensity of the rivalry and Ohio State’s strength as an opponent—the rivalry with Michigan State is an uglier one. Ohio State’s fans may be the scourge of the civilized world, but the Michigan-Ohio State game itself is a generally clean affair that’s free from controversy. The Game is decided by they players, on the field, there are no glaringly bad calls by officials or questionable penalties that decide the outcome. It’s clear who the winner is each game and the team that wins does so by outplaying the other.

Not so with the Michigan-Michigan State game. There’s the pass interference against Desmond Howard in 1990 that wasn’t called. There’s the final second of the 2001 game that seems to last just a little too long.

Playing Michigan State—regardless of who you are—just seems like a bad experience regardless of the outcome. Lose big to the Spartans, and by the end of the season—when they’ve suffered their inevitable collapse—you’re left wondering how you could have lost to such an awful team. Lose a close game to the Spartans, and chances are there was some questionable officiating involved or ridiculous, unsportsmanlike antics after the game by the Spartans. Win a close game over the Spartans, and it’s highly likely they gave the game away through some sort of emotional breakdown or sheer stupidity denying you the satisfaction of having achieved something on your own. Win big over the Spartans, and you’re left with the spectacle of a hapless coach losing his livelihood and a team so dispirited you’re filled with pity and maybe even a little remorse for dealing so harshly with such a wretched foe.

Michigan State games just end badly. There’s nothing celebratory about them. They don’t glorify the abilities of their athletes and they don’t celebrate teamwork. There is always a darker purpose behind their games. Early wins exist solely to raise the expectations of their fans. The first loses are heartbreaking, soul-crushing affairs. Later losses are embarrassing and painful to watch, like witnessing a man die. Any wins at that point aren’t about redemption or saving the season, they’re about the Spartans taking someone else down with them. They’re not experiencing the joy of winning for themselves but making sure someone else knows the pain of defeat. I have a feeling teams need extra long showers, disinfectant, and some counseling after playing the Spartans. Win or lose, it just has to feel dirty.

So, that makes this Saturday’s game between Michigan and Michigan State a scary one. Obviously, Michigan should win, if not because of talent—which isn’t to say Michigan State has none—then because of what has to be the demoralized state of the Spartans. Under Bobby Williams, the Spartans had a coach overwhelmed by the uncontrollable and insane nature of his team, under John L. Smith, the Spartans have a coach who himself appears uncontrollable and insane.

One thing is likely, this game will be ugly. John L. Smith is probably too unstable himself to impose much discipline or composure on his team. In this game, Michigan will play the highly respected and decorated cop with a loving and beautiful wife, bright kids, and so much to lose trying to subdue Michigan State playing a mortally wounded, schizophrenic crack addict wielding a rusty pocket knife. Although, pathetic and doomed at this point, the Spartans, flailing wildly and with nothing left to lose could inflict a lethal blow.

It seems pointless to go through each team’s statistical rankings considering all the emotional and psychological subtexts running through this game, but I’ll give it shot anyway.

Statistically, Michigan State is a lot like Minnesota, on offense, good, on defense, not so much. For the third straight week Michigan is going up against a team whose offensive strength is running the football. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in rushing and is ranked 9th in the country. Have I mentioned that Michigan is still ranked 1st in rushing defense? They are. I’ve pretty much liked what Michigan has done against the recent opponents who are known for running the football so I’m not too worried about it. Plus, the Spartan’s leading rusher, Javon Ringer, is out for the season and quarterback Drew Stanton isn’t completely healthy and they have injuries on the offensive line so that 9th ranked rushing offense isn’t going to be as good. Personally, I think this is a shame, I would prefer Michigan take on—and stuff—a healthy Michigan State offense.

Michigan State throws the ball a little better than Minnesota, but I’m not expecting a huge passing game from Drew Stanton. With their leading rusher out, their quarterback playing with bruised ribs, their offensive line banged up, and the Spartans already ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 71st in the country in sacks allowed, Stanton and his ribs might not even make it through the game. Mr. Stanton, meet Mr. Woodley, Mr. Branch, Mr. Biggs, and Mr. Taylor. Oh, Mr. Crable might want to meet you, too. There is definitely the potential for some Nip/Tuck-like gore in this game.

Defensively, Michigan State’s strength is against the run, if you can call being ranked 41st in the nation a strength. They are, at least, 3rd in the Big Ten. This is a little better than Wisconsin’s run defense, but the Spartan’s are ranked 80th in the nation and 8th in the Big Ten against the pass which is much worse than the Badgers. Mario Manningham, I hope you’re getting used to 100+ yard games.

What is kind of interesting about Michigan State’s defense when compared to Minnesota’s is that the Spartan’s rank better in yardage yielded—65th compared to 84th—but much, much worse in points allowed, 77th compared to 37th. That’s why you’re Michigan State. Perhaps our long national nightmare of amassing lots of yardage without what would seem like an appropriate amount of points is about to be over.

Even if this team was healthy—both physically and mentally—Michigan would still win. The injuries on offense could mean a complete shutting down at the hands of Michigan’s defense and the bizarre Spartan psyche could mean that trying to cope with the dual threats of Mike Hart’s running and Chad Henne’s deep throws right into Manningham’s waiting hands could mean the Spartan defenders heads go all splodey. Of course, there is that whole rusty pocketknife thing.

Oh, and although it’s easy to pity Michigan State for their spectacular football collapses, it may be well for all that they collapse since if they were any good, there would be more of this:


Brad said...

The MSU Riot Team: Winners of 3 of the last 4 Big 10 championships! (OSU unsurprisingly took the title in 2002)

SheepDogg said...

The Paul Bunyan trophy is no longer the ugliest in college football. In a desperate plea for credibility, 2 C-USA teams, Memphis and UAB, have decided to play off the fact that they are both apparently world famous, not only for a disproportionate amount of murders and other inner-city crime for second-rate cities, but also BARBECUE!! Therefore, beginning this year, the winner of "The Battle for the Bones" (I am REALLY not kidding here) will take home a 100lb trophy that is basically a bronzed rack of ribs.

Here is an actual link to an actual site where the 4 UAB fans talk about football, and someone has posted a pic of the trophy.


Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but not being from Michigan, after watching the video clip I get the impression that a Michigane State fan being seen in a Trans-Am with t-tops sporting a mullet and still wearing his high school letterman's jacket wouldn't be out of the range of the expected.

Yost said...


It's actually a source of great pride.

Anonymous said...

So it's alright for Michigan to get a few extra seconds to come up with the winning play, but when State gets a break like that we never hear the end of it.