Michigan State’s Teams: Going Right Through

It should be kind of obvious that the first week and a half of 2012 has been a great time to be a Spartan fan. The football team’s come-from-behind, triple-overtime win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. The men’s basketball team’s overtime win at Wisconsin, breaking a long losing streak at their rival’s arena. The women’s basketball team’s big win at nationally ranked Penn State.

And last night, the men again, blowing out Iowa by a score of 95-61 and looking as dazzling and in sync as any of Coach Tom Izzo’s Final Four teams. That certainly whet the appetites of Chicago Spartans for Saturday’s game in Evanston, when MSU visits Northwestern.

First, let’s salute the football team for its #10 ranking in the final AP football poll. This is a time for celebration, not spite, so I won’t go on about the fact that the #9 team is Michigan, who the Spartans beat 28-14 this past season. So I will be magnanimous about what clearly was a bizarre decision.

By law, though, I cannot coordinate with any SuperPAC that wants to support my pro-Spartan campaign, and I am not accountable for any negative thing they have to say about the college football polls or the BCS bowl game system.

That happens to be a stuffed cow that we use as a trophy for the member of the month on the Chicago Spartans club board. In case it’s not clear, she is wearing a protest sign that reads “Occupy BCS! Fair Play for Spartans.” I swear, I have no idea where that came from. And you have no way of proving otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Spartan basketball team progressed by leaps and bounds from its season-opening losses to national powers North Carolina and Duke, running up a 14-game winning streak and opening their Big 10 season with three consecutive wins going into last night’s game. Yet we still had to wonder what the team could do if it was hitting on all cylinders for a full 40 minutes.

Even in the team’s big December 28 win at home over a very tough Indiana team, the Spartans had a mid-game dead zone that turned an 18-point lead into a nine-point deficit. Fortunately their defense slammed the door and they ended up winning by 15.

Well, last night we were treated to what this powerful but still improving 2011-12 version of Izzoball  looks like at its best, and it sure legitimized that #6 national ranking that MSU earned this week.

The Spartans ran out to a 10-2 lead and then, after an Iowa 3-pointer cut the lead to five, extended their edge to 30-15. Iowa mustered a 7-point run to cut the lead to eight, but Michigan State effectively put the game away with a 16-2 run and a 46-24 halftime lead. A 29-2 rampage in the second half built the lead to 40, prompting Izzo to empty his bench and give the walk-ons some playing time.

Team captain Draymond Green, a senior, continued to combine excellent play — he led the team with 22 points and nine rebounds, and added five assists — with team leadership on the court. Keith Appling, a sophomore who is gaining attention as one of the nation’s best point guards, had 15 points and nine assists.

The team’s unselfish approach on offense is underscored by the fact that three other players scored in double figures (starter Brandon Wood with 12 and Derrick Nix and Travis Trice with 10 apiece off the bench), and the team registered 25 assists on 37 field goals.

That bench strength may prove to be one of Michigan State’s biggest assets in the race for the Big 10 championship. Along with starters Green, Appling, Wood, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, Izzo is getting a lot of playing time from Nix, Trice, Austin Thornton, Branden Kearney and Alex Gauna.

While MSU regularly goes eight- to 10-deep in its player rotation, depending on how close the game is, other Big 10 contenders are much more reliant on their starting five. Illinois and Ohio State, both top-tier teams in the conference this year, played a great game that was televised last night, with the Illini boosted to victory by guard Brandon Paul’s 43-point career game. But neither team had a single point off the bench.

The win over Iowa lifted the Spartans to a 15-2 overall record and a 4-0 start in Big 10 play. This might be a good time to remind you of my blog post back in November that describes MSU as “the best 1-2 team in college basketball.” It took the polls six weeks, and eight wins in a row, to even put the Spartans back in the top 25. Now they are at #6 and rising, lurking close to the kind of ranking that gets you a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

I’ll be magnanimous about that, too. But I can’t make any promise about my SuperPAC. That cow has a bad attitude when she thinks the Spartans are being slighted.



Michigan State’s Wet and Wonderful Day In Evanston

The aftermath of Michigan State’s rainy regular season-ending 31-17 win over Northwestern and my first visit ever to Ryan Field in Evanston: My clothes are all hung in the shower with care, with hopes that they will be dry again sometime this year.

If I wasn’t already a fully blooded Chicago Spartan before today, I am now. It takes a pretty special level of devotion, especially when you’re supposed to be old enough to know better, to watch your college team play in a steady rain on Thanksgiving Saturday with a cool breeze whipping in off Lake Michigan.

MSU players celebrate with Spartan fans at the end of the game. (Photo credit: Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

But this has been a very special Michigan State team. And it would have taken more than a little rain to keep me from joining the thousands of other green-and-white clad MSU fans who trekked out to say thanks today.

Just two years ago, the Spartans still were struggling to end decades out of the national limelight as Coach Mark Dantonio labored to produce a contending program in East Lansing.

Then last year, quite suddenly, the team blossomed to an 11-1 regular season record, and a 7-1 mark in the Big 10 that made them co-champions with Wisconsin and Ohio State.

And with today’s win, Michigan State finished this regular season with a 10-2 overall record, and again 7-1 in the Big 10, good for the outright title in the conference’s new Legends Division — and a spot in next Saturday’s first-ever Big 10 football championship game in Indianapolis against Wisconsin, a rematch of the Oct. 22 Homecoming thriller that the Spartans won, 37-31, on a game-ending “Hail Mary” touchdown pass.

So that adds up to a 21-3 two-year record, 14-2 in the Big 10, for a program that was 4-8 as recently as 2006, the last year before Dantonio became head coach.

Today’s game showcased the senior stars who played such a big role in this turnaround.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a perfect strike to senior Keshawn Martin near the end of the first half that set up the touchdown that put MSU ahead, 10-3. Then, after a quick defensive stop, Martin — whose hands, speed and moves make him, I believe, a potential first-round NFL draft pick — fielded a punt on one bounce at his own 43 yard line, sprinted around the right end and then up the sideline for the score that built the halftime lead to 17-3.

And both times that Northwestern scored touchdowns in the second half to make it close, Cousins responded by connecting with senior B.J. Cunningham — the Spartans’ record holder for career receptions — including a remarkable game-clinching play in which he juggled the ball twice with a Northwestern defender on his back for 12 yards before pulling it in as he crossed the goal line. In the process, Cousins, already the winningest quarterback in school history, broke the standing MSU career record for touchdown passes.

Yet, while these impact players will be hard to replace next season, it must be noted again that this very accomplished Michigan State team is also very young. Among the standout underclassmen today was Le’Veon Bell, a rising star at running back, who gain 86 yards in 16 carries, a 5.4 yard per carry average. Bell scored that touchdown that put MSU ahead by 10-3 on a 7-yard run in which he faked a Northwestern defender out of his shoes and jogged into the end zone untouched.

Non-seniors also made most of the key plays on defense, including six quarterback sacks.

So the Spartans move on to the Big 10 championship game. It will take a heck of an effort to beat the very talented Wisconsin team for the second time this season — the Badgers asserted themselves in a must-win game today, crushing Penn State by 45-7 to claim the Leaders Division title. But Michigan State finds itself one game away from the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season.

And that,  in and of itself, is something for the MSU faithful to feel thankful for this weekend.

The Lake Shore View: Spartan Basketball, To .500… And Beyond

As we’ve discussed, Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s highly regarded men’s basketball coach, likes to harden his team for the rigors of the Big 10 championship season by scheduling early-season games against some of the nation’s toughest teams.

This year, that strategy resulted in something that most coaches with NCAA championship dreams would dread: An 0-2 start, as Izzo’s unusually young squad lost to #1-ranked North Carolina in a showcase game on board an aircraft carrier in San Diego and to almost top-ranked Duke in another marquee game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

But it took only two games in three days this weekend — albeit against the type of second-tier teams that most national powers spend the early season feasting upon — to get MSU back to the .500 level. Tonight, the Spartans easily defeated University of Arkansas at Little Rock by the score of 69-47, on the heels of Friday’s 76-41 romp over Texas Southern in the Breslin Center home opener.

This week’s national basketball rankings come out on Monday. Can a team with a 2-2 record make the top 25? A little doubtful, given how many teams — most of which have only played what amount to glorified scrimmages so far — are still undefeated.

But if any team might get that kind of consideration, it is the Spartans, based on Izzo’s extraordinary record — a national championship and five other Final Four appearances since 1999 — and his history of producing teams that are much better when the NCAA tournament rolls around in March than they are when the season starts in November.

Now, I ask your indulgence for a public service announcement for my fellow Chicago Spartans (and friends nearby who would like to join us for some of our big upcoming events).

* MSU’s football team, newly crowned as champion of the Big 10′s Legends Division, visits Evanston Saturday to finish up its regular season schedule against Northwestern… and tickets are still available. With many of the home team’s students away for the Thanksgiving weekend, we have an opportunity to change the color scheme at Ryan Field from Northwestern purple to MSU green. Join us by ordering discount tickets at this site.

There also will be a post-game happy hour, co-sponsored by the national MSU alumni association, at Buffalo Wild Wings, located at 1741 Maple Avenue in Evanston. Details about this event will be posted at the Chicago Spartans site.

* We are planning to pack every Spartan bar in Chicago for the game watches on Saturday, December 3, when MSU travels to Indianapolis to play either Wisconsin or Penn State in the first-ever Big 10 championship football game. Details on the anchor game watch will be forthcoming shortly.

* Back to basketball. Just a few tickets remain for the Chicago Spartans’ December 17 road trip to East Lansing to watch the MSU men take on Bowling Green. If you are interested in going — or will already be in The Mitten for the holidays and want to pop up to campus to join us — please contact me asap.

* SpartyBall, the Chicago Spartans’ big annual scholarship endowment fundraiser, will be held on Saturday, February 25 at the beautiful River East Arts Center in downtown Chicago… and tickets are on sale!

Also, planning already is well under way, and we need as many enthusiastic volunteers as we can muster. If you would like to spend some time helping make this the best SpartyBall ever — and have fun with some of the nicest people in Chicago — please come to our next planning meeting on Wednesday, December 7 (6:30 pm) at Mad River Grille, 2909 N. Sheffield in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

May as well catch up on the weather rap here. It was chilly today, with a strong wind providing a winter-preview bite. But even a cloudy day on the Lake Shore can provide some interesting skies. (The factory smokestacks on the horizon are, I believe, in Burns Harbor, Indiana, about 35 miles in a straight line from where we live.)

In the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown…

According to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare on Friday had a high of 51, a low of 30 and no rain. Washington Reagan National had a high of 48, a low of 34 and no rain. A narrow win for Chicago.

On Saturday, Chicago O’Hare on Friday had a high of 57, a low of 45 and no rain. Washington Reagan National had a high of 55, a low of 37 and no rain. Another very narrow win for Chicago. That brings Chicago’s overall lead to 64-44.

The Lake Shore View: Not Our Dream Season Yet, But There’s Always Pork Chops… And Werewolves

Dinner tonight was a slow cooker recipe, tried for the first time: pork chops in a maple-bourbon barbecue sauce. Served with roasted acorn squash doused in the same sauce.

Was it good? What about the phrase “Maple Bourbon Pork Chops” don’t you understand? It was awesome! Or should I say is awesome, because we have a couple of meals worth of leftovers.

Nice comfort food, for a chilly fall weekend — we’ve had a bit of rain tonight — that deflated our dreams of Michigan State football glory a bit (but still left us in the thick of the race for the Big 10 Championship — more about that below). Here’s how the Lake Shore View looked earlier today.

Tomorrow is Halloween, but I have to admit that it is an event that has always been a bit lost on me. Maybe it’s the result of my having been kind of a weird kid, or that I always had a pretty small sweet tooth, but I’ve just never been much into it.

There was one particular positive impact of this being Halloween weekend, though. Today was the first day in my second round of guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and one of the selections chosen for us to play was the late Warren Zevon’s 1978 song “Werewolves of London,” one of my favorite novelty tunes.

Turns out that it is very easy to play along with: three chords (D,C and G) played over and over again. One of the few times that I started this a couple of months ago that I felt like I am getting the hang of what I’m doing.

It all helped me put yesterday’s 24-3 MSU football at Nebraska behind me.

The Spartans’ mastery of the first three games of a brutal October schedule — with at win at Ohio State, a home drubbing of archrival Michigan, and the astounding last-second Hail Mary pass to beat Wisconsin on Homecoming Saturday — allowed us to dream that this would be the year that the Green and White emerged as the Big 10′s dominant power.

But it was also a tremendous grind, made worse by the fact that they had to segue from that late-night thriller against Wisconsin the previous Saturday to an 11 a.m. start this Saturday (thanks a lot, TV scheduling gods) in Lincoln, the team’s longest road trip this season by far. MSU looked flat from the get-go, with quarterback Kirk Cousins, just seven days removed from his heroics against the Badgers, throwing a costly interception on MSU’s first possession and have one of the worst games overall of his college career.

The offensive line, which had met every challenge since a poor performance in a week 3 loss to Notre Dame — the only other blemish on the team’s 6-2 season record — had numerous breakdowns against the homestanding Cornhuskers. And receivers, who all season have seemed to find a way to get open to make big plays, were blanketed by Nebraska’s defensive backs.

Some of my Spartan friends contend that Coach Mark Dantonio and his staff had a rare game-plan FAIL, playing too conservatively and failing to adjust when it became clear that Nebraska’s D was stifling MSU’s offense. I disagree for the most part, though. Sometimes a team loses because it is outplayed and outcoached. But there are days when the other team simply plays better than yours.

It may sound like excuse-making, but the scheduling of this game had to work strongly to Nebraska’s advantage. The Cornhuskers in the two weeks previously to playing Michigan State had a bye week off, then had a cakewalk over Minnesota, one of the conference’s weakest teams. MSU, during those two weeks, emotionally maxed out at home against Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the other contenders for the Big 10 title, and then had to hit the road to Nebraska. The home team’s players looked fresh and rested, while the MSU team looked tired.

Nonetheless, Saturday’s game was just a setback and was hardly the end of MSU’s hopes of winning its division and playing this December in the first-ever Big 10 Championship game. In fact, the Spartans have a control of their own destiny. The schedule lightens up considerably now. And if MSU can run the table of the four remaining games they have in November, their odds of winning the division are good, I believe.

The first game in this stretch is at home against Minnesota, which suffered three crushing defeats in Big 10 play this season before pulling out a 22-21 upset over Iowa on Saturday. That win suggests that MSU cannot afford to take Minnesota for granted. But it also seems to suggest that Iowa — which gave MSU a spanking when they played in Iowa City last year — may be more vulnerable when the Spartans come to visit again on Nov. 12. Then it’s back home on Nov. 19 against Indiana, again dwelling at the bottom of the league standings, and then here to be greeted in Evanston by thousands of Chicago Spartans on Thanksgiving Saturday when they play Northwestern, a team with a powerful offense but a porous defense that has relegated the Wildcats to also-ran status this year.

That gives MSU the least severe schedule among the contenders in its division. Nebraska, after hosting Northwestern next Saturday, has back-to-back road games at Penn State (the undefeated leader of the Big 10′s other division) and Michigan, the other team currently tied at 3-1 with Nebraska and MSU in their division. Michigan this Saturday will be playing at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes will be on the rebound from that Minnesota loss; then at Illinois, a good team that has suffered a series of frustrating losses; then home for Nebraska and its annual grudge match with Ohio State. Iowa, at 2-2 in the Big 10, can’t yet be counted out, but they’d need to max out their home field advantage against both Michigan and Michigan State before heading to Nebraska for the season finale.

It is clear that MSU has not yet arrived as a national championship contender. But after a lot of mostly miserable season in our recent past, the fact that Coach Dantonio has us talking about whether we’ll go 10-2 or maybe “just” 9-3 is a radical improvement.

To wrap, let’s get the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown out of the way. Washington yesterday didn’t get the premature snowstorm that hit much of the Northeast, but it was close enough to get a wintry mix. That produced an easy win for Chicago, boosted its overall lead over D.C. to 54-33.

According to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare on Saturday recorded a high of 55, a low of 34 and no rain. Washington Reagan National recorded a high of 42, a low of 34, and 1.18 of precipitation (so it’s a darn good thing that wasn’t all snow).

Since you’ve been so nice to read all the way to the bottom, here’s a bonus photo of last night’s lovely Chicago sunset.



The Lake Shore View: The Cubs Are Tied For First

We had a beautiful sunrise over the lake today. A nice day to head to Lincoln Park and watch Michigan State take on Nebraska in football with my fellow Spartans at Hi-Tops. (If you’re one of us and want to see where to watch the game, please visit the Chicago Spartans website.)

As a lifelong baseball fan, I say congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals on their World Series victory. An admirable surge to the top.

Burdened by injuries, the Cards were almost invisible for most of the season, ceding first place early on to the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division and presumed dead when they trailed Atlanta for the wild-card playoff slot by 10-1/2 games in August.

Yes, they would have watched the playoffs on TV if the Braves hadn’t gotten into a competition with the Boston Red Sox for worst September collapse ever.

But talk about getting hot at the right time! The Cards went 23-8 over the last month of the regular season; then eliminated the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies in the first round of the playoffs; then vanquished the Brewers, who had finished six games ahead of them in the Central; then came back from a 3-games-to-2 deficit to defeat Texas in the final two clinching games in St. Louis. Game 6, the 10-9 thrill ride the Cardinals won on Thursday to stay alive, became an instant classic.

But… it’s over now. Hope springs eternal, even in the fall, and as far as I’m concerned, we are so over the 2011 baseball season — one in which the Cubs, my new neighborhood team, staggered to a 71-91 record and responded by recruiting Theo Epstein, the former “boy wonder” general manager of the Boston Red Sox, to try to turn around more than a century of cruel fate.

The countdown to the 2012 season — only 159 days until Opening Day on April 5! — is on, and the Cubs, once again, are tied for first.

Though I adopted the Cubs as one of my teams several years ago (yes, when I was old enough to know better), it was long-distance, so I don’t have a native’s animus to the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals. Yet. But I’m sure I will gin it up over time. Anyone who has witnessed my animus toward the New York Yankees knows what I’m capable of.

Besides, I think that even I’ve gotten tired of listening to my arguments about  the Yankees’ outrageous overspending on player payroll, and my generic Yankee vitriol that friend Frank Hodal has compared to performance art. I now live a safe distance from the Yankees’ annual ritual sacrifice of the sad, sad Baltimore Orioles, a team I once held dear until it just became too depressing, and can ignore the whole grim spectacle if I choose to do so.

If you’re one of my out-of-town friends, please plan ahead to come visit Chicago next baseball season and I promise I will join you for a game or two. It may take a year or three for Theo to right this ship, but Wrigley Field is always worth the trip. (A preview of the 2012 Cubs schedule is here; if you want to coordinate and catch the Cubs and White Sox on the same trip, the ALers’ sked is here.)

I’ve long said that Wrigley Field is the only ballpark where I can watch a really bad game but still count it as one of my best days out of the year. Hopefully, going forward, the Cubs won’t test that proposition as often as they have in the past.

Just to catch you up on the weather thing… the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown stands at 53-33.

According to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare on Thursday recorded a high of 51, a low of 39, and .14 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National had a high of had a high of 66, a low of 45 and .13 of an inch of rain. Pretty meh on both fronts, but it was less chilly in Washington. Point D.C.

On Friday, O’Hare reported a high of 54, a low of 37 and no rain. Washington Reagan National had a high of 52, a low of 41 and .08 of an inch of rain. Just as chilly this time in D.C., but damp. Point Chicago.

It is sunny and bright with a predicted high of 52 in Chicago today. Washington is getting an unusually early dose of wintry mix — rain, sleet and snow — with gusty wins. We’ll officially award that point to Chicago tomorrow.

Mementos Of A Memorable Michigan State Homecoming

To put the final touches on my spectacular weekend at Michigan State’s Homecoming, here are some photos I took at the epic football game Saturday and at the Spartans’ hockey loss to Ohio State Friday night.

The football photos are out of sequence because I’m sure you’ll want to see the end of the game pix first. (If you’d like to read my thoughts on MSU’s miracle win over Wisconsin,click here.)

That scrum at the far end of the field is the MSU team celebrating with the student section after the replay review determined that the Spartans had scored the game-winning touchdown on a Hail Mary pass play.

An oblique view of the scoreboard in the north end zone, where the game-winning play took place, shows the final score: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31.

And hours earlier... the Spartan Marching Band... still one of the best bands in the land... but, fortunately, no longer the best reason to go to an MSU football game.

Gene Washington, star wide receiver on the national champion 1965-66 Michigan State football teams, at a pre-game ceremony retiring his uniform number. Washington is surrounded by teammates from the end of the last great era of Spartan football. They got to witness a game that might signal the rise of the next great era.

The opening kickoff -- the beginning of a long and amazing night of football.

MSU on offense in early game action.

And... the halftime show.

First period hockey action between MSU and Ohio State.

Sparty skates. Who knew?

The game was tied, 2-2, going into the third period, but Ohio State broke it open to win, 5-2, including an empty-net goal near the end.