Oct. 23, 2010
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By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The play's the thing.
We've got to find a way to make some plays down the stretch against good football teams. That's what it came down to.
It was all right there for the 'Cats Saturday in their Homecoming Game with undefeated and No. 8 Michigan State. They were controlling the line on both sides of the ball and their defense was most-impressively stonewalling the Spartans' running attack. Their own offense also sputtered some, especially at the second half's start. But finally, late in the third quarter, it resurrected itself and when quarterback Dan Persa snuck an inch for their third touchdown, they were up 10 and just under three minutes away from the fourth quarter. Then the plays came.
The Spartans entered this one averaging 206.1 rushing yards per-game, but from the start they struggled to dent the 'Cat defensive line. On their first possession they were stopped for no gain on a third-and-one and, in the same situation on their second possession, they were thrown for a three-yard loss. That, soon enough, turned them to the arm of quarterback Kirk Cousins, which is just what the 'Cats wanted. "That's the idea," the linebacker Bryce McNaul later said. "You look at Michigan State on tape before you play them, you say, 'OK, if we can stop the run, if we can get them in situations where they're going to throw the ball on second-and-long, third-and-long, we like our chances.' So obviously it's quite disappointing when you have them in those situations and we don't get off the field."
They, in fact, had them in a third-and-seven just after going up 10, but here Cousins found Keith Nichol for 11 and a first down. Two plays later, on second-and-12, he hooked up with B.J. Cunningham for 16, but now the 'Cats once again stiffened and, three plays into the fourth quarter, the Spartans faced a fourth-and-six 31 yards from the end zone. They called time out, returned to the field, took a delay penalty, lined up to punt, and then the plays came.
Aaron Bates is both the Spartan punter and holder on field goal attempts and, in that latter role, he burned Notre Dame earlier this year with a touchdown pass off a fake in overtime. So it was not surprising that McNaul would later say, "At that part of the field, you have to be aware they can fake it at any time. We certainly had our antennas up."
But they were not up far enough and here Bates threw a jump ball Bennie Fowler grabbed over 'Cat corner Jordan Mabin for a 23-yard gain down to the 13. "At that point in the game," Mabin himself would later say, "we were having a safe punt and, normally, you chuck the guy 10, 15 yards and let him go just because you don't want to get hit by a punt, by a safe punt that is. I did that and they faked it. It was a good play on their part. It was clutch."
Did he think there was a chance for a fake?
"Actually no, because I guarded him on the punt the whole day so I wasn't really thinking of that at the moment."
Did their intentional delay penalty lead him to believe they would kick?
"That really didn't go through our heads. We had safe to prevent the fake and that's just one of the techniques we've been using and I guess it caught up to us today. Usually when we're doing a prevent on a safe punt return they just go ahead and punt the ball. That was good coaching, good play call on their part, and they made a great play."
Did they expect a fake at all, Fitzgerald himself would be asked.
"No. You've got to give credit where credit's due," he said. "We talked all week that there was going to be a fake punt and that they we're probably going to throw it. But did we expect that fake punt? No. . . We've just got to make the play."
There would be one more play for the Spartans on this drive, and it came on their very next snap when Mark Dell beat 'Cat corner Brian Peters and Cousins found him by the right pylon for the touchdown that pulled them to within three. "There was a tendency I knew was coming. They had motioned into it and I didn't commit," Peters would later say. "It was a lack of execution on my part. The team that executes the most is going to win and we didn't do that in the fourth quarter."
Persa was under assault through much of this afternoon and, at its end, had (unofficially) scrambled 13 times and been (officially) sacked eight. ("That's on me holding onto the ball. I've got to get rid of the ball," he would say of the sacks). The Spartans also squeezed his favorite receiver, Jeremy Ebert, who would end with just two catches for 20 yards, and the superback Drake Dunsmore, the other combustible 'Cat weapon who did not have even one ball thrown his way.
But here, with momentum favoring the Spartans, Persa did find Charles Brown streaking down the left hash mark and hit him for 28 and a first down at the Spartan 29. He followed that with a 15-yard scramble, but then, following a three-yard run by Adonis Smith, he was sacked twice and the 'Cats were forced to settle for the 41-yard field goal by Stefan Demos that pushed their lead back to six. Then, once again, the plays came.
There was 7:18 remaining when the most-critical drive of them all began, and here is how the Spartans took this one away from the 'Cats. On second-and-20 from his own 20, Cousins hit Nicol for 18 to set up a five-yard run for a first down by Edwin Baker. On third-and-15 from the 'Cat 44, Cousins hit Nicol for 14 and then, on fourth-and-one, he hit Charlie Gantt for eight and a first down at the 22. Now he hit Baker for 13 and finally, from the 9, he threw a post toward Cunningham that barely eluded Peters and bounced in the air before the Spartan receiver corralled it. When he did, Peters, who was prone, dropped his head into the grass and pounded the turf.
"I got my hand on (that) one. I thought I was going to catch it, to tell you the truth," he later said. "But not quite. It's a game of inches and it went their way today."
And what went through his mind as he was lying there?
"It's not PG rated. It was a play I should have made. They made more big plays than we did down the stretch and that ended up costing us."
The 'Cats still had two minutes to reclaim this one, but on their very first play, as Persa was getting sacked, tackle Al Netter was hit with a personal foul. "I think his hand got up in a young man's face. Yeah," said Fitzgerald. "That's offensive line play. That happens from time-to-time. Obviously, not an opportune time for that to happen."
Now, on first-and-15 following a Spartan offside, Persa overthrew Ebert and hit Sidney Stewart for eight and then twice overthrew Ebert again. That gave the Spartans a chance to ice their cake, which they did on a 25-yard touchdown run by Baker, and then came Persa's final sack and his only interception of the day. "It's tough. Up 10 in the fourth quarter and not come out on top, it hurts," he would soon be saying. "We've got to respond. We've got to do something. We've got to turn this around."
"It's very disappointing," echoed McNaul. "For a few weeks in a row we've had these tough Big Ten games go down to the last minute, the last drive. In Minnesota we got the job done. But what's disappointing is finish is an MO of our program and we weren't able to finish today. So, yeah, very disappointed in that."
And now? "We've got more games, you just keep playing," said Fitzgerald. "What you have to understand in this league is anyone can win on a given Saturday. So you've got to buckle it up and get ready to play for 60 minutes. It's not a 30-minute game. It's not a 45-minute game. You've got to play through 60 and until we decide collectively to do that as a program, it's going to be tough to win."
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