It’s hard to say when things spiraled out of control for Michigan State at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Thursday night. There were plenty of moments to choose from.
Four players in the Spartans locker room had different answers as they tried to wrap their heads around what had just unfolded. There were the two Calvin Ridley catches -- the touchdown and the 50-yard bomb to the goal line. There was Alabama’s interception going into halftime or the punt return for a touchdown or even Kenyan Drake's 58-yard run to start the final touchdown drive.
“They’re a very good football team,” fifth-year center Jack Allen said. “They played really well. They took advantage of every opportunity.”
Every time the semifinal matchup took a turn, it was a wrong turn for Michigan State. It was the same mistakes Michigan State had seen on film earlier in the year -- blown coverages, special-teams miscues, a stagnant rushing attack -- but stacked on top of one another against a quality opponent the result was a 38-0 blowout.
On paper, after five years of what felt like a steep and steady rise in East Lansing, Michigan State was only four points better than the 49-7 beatdown the Crimson Tide handed out at the end of the 2010 season. Has that little changed?
When his team lost to Alabama at the 2011 Capital One Bowl, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called it “a reality check” and an “avalanche.”
"We were outcoached, we were outplayed and we were outphysicaled and that's just the way it is,” he said at the time.
The same could be said this time around. Alabama found a better recipe for moving the ball on offense than the Spartans could. Alabama's stars performed better than Michigan State’s, and in the second half Alabama controlled the line of scrimmage.
That’s a 10,000-foot view of what unfolded at AT&T Stadium. A closer look reveals the progress most expected to see. Alabama coach Nick Saban said he saw a stronger, deeper group of Spartans than he remembered from their previous meeting. Five years ago, the Tide scored rushing touchdowns on their first four possessions and never looked back. This time around, it was only two plays that separated the teams at halftime -- Ridley’s long catch that set up a touchdown and the interception Connor Cook threw near the goal line.
“They just hit more big plays than we did,” said linebacker Darien Harris, another fifth-year player who has seen the bulk of Michigan State’s rise. “I’m not going to say we played our best game. Obviously, we didn’t. I don’t think the gap is that big.”
The biggest difference between the two games may have come away from the field. Dantonio and his players weren’t left with the same helpless feeling this time. It was an opportunity missed. Maybe not an opportunity to win -- Alabama is darn-near unbeatable when Jake Coker completes 83 percent of his passes -- but at least a chance to put up a more competitive game. The mood, though, after the game was optimistic.
“You wish you had another chance at it, but we’re still a great team,” left tackle Jack Conklin said. “We’re 12-2. We’re the No. 3 team in the nation. It sucks to go down like that, but we’re going to keep fighting and we’re going to learn from it.”
Conklin said he hasn’t reached a final decision yet on whether or not he’ll use his last year of eligibility or head to the NFL. If he returns, he’ll be part of a much different Spartans team in 2016. Cook is gone. So are Allen, Harris and a host of other fifth-year veterans that leave as the winningest class in school history.
There are two lenses through which to view that group’s final game at Michigan State. Either the program is still miles behind the industry leader and snapping into rebuild mode, or the guys that are leaving have laid the foundation for more talent and more depth to keep closing a gap that has in fact grown smaller since they started despite Thursday’s final score.
“We didn’t get it done collectively,” Dantonio said this time around. “But you remain focused on being positive, and you take the next step in life. I think that’s what you have to do.”
It’s hard to deny that Michigan State has taken big steps forward even in the past year. Their season long mantra of “reach higher” was accomplished, even if they didn’t reach quite as high as they had hoped. The next step will be a difficult one.