Nov. 25, 2013
His team had just lost its seventh straight, this one by 24 to No. 13 Michigan State, and Pat Fitzgerald was about halfway through his post-game analysis. That is when he said, "The year '13 is over here in a week. Good riddance. Something about that number, I don't like it a whole lot. I like the idea of those hotels who don't put it on their floors."
His 'Cats were 4-0 when the calendar flipped from September to October and just ahead was a clash with Ohio State. This was going to be their signature moment, the evening they would introduce themselves to the nation, and for much of it they did not blink in a stare down with the Buckeyes. But late they made a crucial mistake, quarterback Kain Colter fumbling a direct snap from center, and ultimately they lost by 10.
"We talk about that all the time in the locker room," defensive end Tyler Scott said Saturday when asked if he thought the season would have gone differently if they had toppled the Bucks. "You never know. I mean, we've been in so many games, so close, it's a play here, a play there. We've had multiple opportunities to change this streak, this losing streak, but we just haven't done it. So, who knows?"
Their latest chance, the one against Michigan State, arrived accompanied by bitter conditions, the temperature reading 23, the wind chill dipping to nine, the gusts blowing at 29 mph. But on their second possession the `Cats ignored the elements and drove smartly against the Spartan defense, which statistically is the best in the nation. But here, too, a pair of realities arose that perfectly captured their state these last two months.
The first occurred on the fourth play of the drive when Colter ran a curl and turned to catch Trevor Siemian's throw. He would be crushed by Spartan safety Isaiah Lewis, who hit him helmet-to-helmet and was ejected for targeting, and then he would be assisted from the field, his Senior Day ended early and his status for Saturday's regular-season finale at Illinois in doubt.
That has been one theme during the `Cats slide, a rash of injuries so significant that Fitzgerald would say on Saturday that "This is as beat up a team as I've ever had to coach." Then, at the end of this drive, another of those themes recurred when, after having first-and-goal at the Spartan seven, they failed to punch it in and settled for a Jeff Budzien field goal. "That's kind of been the theme all year. We haven't been able to finish drives," even Siemian noted.
"You've got to be able to run the ball in the red zone, especially inside the 10," said Fitzgerald. "That is, a year ago, what we were able to do. We were able to score a lot more touchdowns because we were able to run the football. This year we just have not been able to do that consistent enough."
Here is the proof. A year ago the `Cats converted 50 of their 57 red zone chances (87.7 percent). That is, on the surface, worse than they have done this fall, when they've gone a Big-Ten-best 40-of-41 (97.5 percent). But last year 34 of their 50 scores were touchdowns (68 percent) and this year that ratio is only 22-of-40 (55 percent). Then, to Fitzgerald's specific point, there is also this. Twenty-five of those 34 touchdowns last year came on the ground (73.5 percent) and this year that number is only 59.1 percent (13-of-22).
He was not addressing this failure on Saturday. The question concerned the difficulty of enduring this season. But his answer applies here for now he said, "This will obviously be an incredible motivator for our entire program in the off-season. The coaching staff, to correct things we can correct. With our strength staff, we obviously have to improve our strength. We have to be stronger at the point of attack in both lines. Especially on the offensive line, we've really got to improve our strength there."
Just over six minutes remained in the first half and the `Cats, down four, now faced a fourth-and-six at the Spartan 37. On the previous play they had missed on a fly pattern to Rashad Lawrence and, on the one before that, Kyle Prater had been stuffed for no gain on a reception in the right flat. So here, with the wind at his back and a 54-yard field goal beckoning, Fitzgerald called time and consulted with his coaches. "We made a decision collectively there," he would explain. "Obviously it falls on my shoulders and I can overrule and say, `Hey, let's go for it.' But we felt like we'd gotten hit there and we wanted to go play some defense.
"I know every fan wants me to go for it on every fourth down. I got it. Check the box. Got ya. We won a lot of football games here going for it and not going for it. I understand it. I get the criticism and I respect it. When we go for it and get it, it's great. When we go for it and don't get it, sometimes we put ourselves in a tough situation. So I decided to play defense there. Our defense played pretty well most of the year."
They would not do that here after Chis Gradone's punt rolled out-of-bounds at the Spartan eight. They would instead quickly give up an explosion play, Spartan wideout Bennie Fowler making a one-handed catch over a well-positioned Matthew Harris and carrying it 87 yards to put his team up 11. The `Cats would respond here, quickly driving to a first-and-goal at the eight, but again they stalled, again they would settle for a Budzien field goal.
Now, after halftime, they would never again sniff the Spartan end zone, never again get closer than the Spartan 32. Concurrently their defense, so stout for so long, slowly buckled, and eventually they were gouged by a field goal and a 15-yard scoring pass and a 37-yard touchdown dash on which Spartan running back Jeremy Langford was barely touched. "We had some breakdowns, whether that being up front or in coverage," Long would later admit. "I know on a couple long runs, we didn't get guys in the right gaps.
"I don't know what it was. I'll definitely know tomorrow when I come in and watch film. But it was our fault. They're a great team. They're a physical team. You can't go out there and make mistakes when you've got a great opponent like that."
And so now what, what now with no bowl game ahead and only a trip to Illinois left in the year '13?
"We're going to do everything we can to win the game," said Fitzgerald. "We're going to do everything we can to, number one, send our seniors out the right way by getting a win. Getting a win for our program. Getting a solid taste into our mouth for the off-season and spring board it that way. And then playing our rival and winning the Land Of Lincoln (trophy) is obviously something that's very important to our entire football program."
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