EAST LANSING, Mich. — “Mark, I have one long theoretical question for you,” a reporter began, while a smirk briefly showed itself on Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s face.
The inquiry may have been long-winded, but it came down to a request for Dantonio to comment on how his players feel after losing a game in which they played relatively well compared to the five weeks prior. Michigan State (2-6, 0-5 Big Ten) fell to No. 2 Michigan (8-0, 5-0) on Saturday, but the 32-23 final reflected improved effort.
“I thought we had an edge to us,” Dantonio began, and after emphasizing the disappointment of losing, he continued. “There are no moral victories, just like I’ve said before. We’ve got to take it, but I think we can find a little bit of — you can feel good that you competed.
“You can feel good that things went in this direction. You can feel good as a coach that we’ve got an opportunity to win this football game. We really do. But we’ve got to convert on our opportunities.”
Missed opportunities played a large part in the loss. The Spartans will rue three failed fourth-down conversion attempts, a very avoidable interception late in the first half and a missed field goal.
But more than that, Dantonio and his team will see that early on, it got outplayed by a front-running, quick-strike Michigan offense. Michigan State did all it could offensively to keep the Wolverines’ playmakers off the field, but every opportunity the visitors had, they took.
Given a chance to get to the edge, Michigan’s Eddie McDoom or Jabrill Peppers would take it, with the Spartans seemingly lacking the speed to keep them from doing so. Michigan WR Amara Darboh (8 catches, 165 yards) might have reeled in anything that came close to him, but big plays became an inevitability with how wide open he found himself in the first half.
Michigan finished the day with 12 plays of at least 15 yards. Nine of those came in the first two quarters. After the break, though, the mistakes and lapses in concentration that have plagued Michigan State seemed to be few and far between.
“Everyone started doing their assignments,” LB Riley Bullough said. “In football, all 11 guys got to do their job every single play. You play a good team like Michigan like we did today, if you don’t, they’re going to take advantage of it. That’s what happened a few times. I think our guys played tough. We kept fighting the whole game. That’s something positive.”
The Spartans certainly couldn’t say the same after the previous five games. “Finishing” consistently came up as one of the biggest issues. Fans feared the worst when the fourth quarter came around. Not this time. MSU gave up 287 yards in the first half, then 108 in the third, then 41 in the fourth.
Everything’s relative. Any other year, this performance would not have garnered many positive reactions. This time, though, a moral victory may be acceptable for the Spartans’ second-half response. Even if Dantonio won’t take one.