Michigan State's game last night was in many ways similar to what we'll see all over the Midwest over the next few months: intermittent brilliance undercut by a series of worrying miscues and downright bad luck. A team on the precipice of something much bigger.
When I looked at the final box score this morning I was shocked to see that Andrew Maxwell passed for 248 yards while completing 57 percent of his passes. Live it looked much worse. There were overthrows, tosses into the dirt, and balls that whizzed in and out of Boise defenders while those at home looked on and wondered just who was supposed to be the intended target after all. He didn't receive much help as balls bounced off the hands of receivers and those same receivers failed to get any real separation. In a cruel twist of fate, Tony Lippet's longest catch of the day ended in a fumble that Boise State easily scooped up. It was Murphy's Law all over the field for Michigan State.
If it weren't for these miscues the Spartan defense could have easily pitched a shutout. Boise State's offense -- a unit replacing most of its starting lineup from a year ago -- looked helpless for long stretches, never really threatened to score without assistance, and once stripped of the lead late, collapsed under the weight of the Michigan State defense. That defense was every bit as punishing and disruptive as has been advertised. Michigan State allowed only 206 total yards and just 1.5 yards per rush. There was hardly an offensive snap for Boise State where the Spartans weren't immediately breathing down Joe Southwick's neck. It was 60 minutes of hell for a team accustomed to life in the clouds.
In the end it was appropriate that the scoring began and ended with LeVeon Bell. The junior running back flashed equal parts elusiveness and raw, Bronco-hating power. His offensive line looks better than last year, but not enough to handle what is obviously going to be a larger workload -- 44-caries later, Javon Ringer is no doubt impressed. Once again it was Bell making first downs out of thin air, refusing to go down after first contact, and even making those "wow" plays in space that a man of that size just shouldn't be able to make. At times watching Boise State's young linebackers bounce off Bell as he churned his legs forward for another first down was almost heartbreaking. Those poor kids. They had no idea what they were getting into trying to tackle him again and again.
I don't know if Boise State is really the kind of team (Program, yes Team? No.) on which one wants to stake its national reputation this year. The Broncos are in an obvious state of upheaval that only time is going to cure. Past that, the sloppy game Michigan State played doesn't do much to sway the doubters. We already knew that defense was all-world good. We also knew the passing game would look rough. Michigan State: who we thought they were.
I read a piece over at Off Tackle Empire yesterday that feels apropos now. If We're Gonna Go Down, Let's Go Down Swinging. It isn't just a piece examining the large scale opportunities the Big Ten has in front of it. After all, the two biggest non-conference games are the aforementioned one against a rebuilding Boise and the almost sure bludgeoning that Michigan is readying itself to walk into tonight. Those games are the launching off point for the real discussion.
The true point of the article is only briefly touched on directly: potential. Michigan State showed it last night, playing around 2/3rds of the football needed for a win and still strangling a young Boise State team for 60 minutes. Michigan will flash it as well tonight. So too will Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and even the rest of the Big Ten through the season.
These teams will also struggle at time, whether it be because of an imperfect defense, a lack of quality depth, quarterback play, or some other issue still over the horizon.
The Big Ten isn't there yet, but for the first time in many, many years, it finally feels like things are coming together. The right coaches have established themselves at the right schools, the right recruits have started filling the rosters, and football north of the Mason-Dixon line has begun to blossom again.
Michigan State showed last night that the Big Ten still isn't quite there yet. But more importantly, the Spartans showed just how far the conference has come.