Did This Single Play Alter MSU's Season?

Did This Single Play Alter MSU's Season?

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Did This Single Play Alter MSU's Season?

Games aren’t ever decided on a single play – and seasons certainly aren’t ever defined by a single play. But did this play at Arizona State have a significant impact on the direction of the 2018 season for Michigan State?

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With 6:30 left in the second quarter, Michigan State led Arizona State 3-0 in Tempe and had 2nd and goal from the Sun Devil 6-yard line.

The Spartans had taken possession at midfield after stopping Arizona State on 4th and 1 and the Spartans moved methodically down to the 6-yard line over 8 plays.

There was a sense that Michigan State was about to take full control of the game and, perhaps, deliver an early knockout punch to a team that didn’t have an identity in the very early stages of a new coaching regime.

Brian Lewerke took the shotgun snap, backpedaled a bit to escape some pressure, and flipped a pass off of his back foot intended for tight end Matt Dotson (who was open).

The pass was slightly high and Dotson couldn’t manage to haul it in.

The pass tipped off of Dotson’s hands, off of a Sun Devil defensive back’s hands, and into the hands of Dasmond Tautalatasi’s hands.

Tautalatasi escaped the traffic of the endzone and brought the ball out to the 16-yard line for the Sun Devils.

The heat soaked crowd went bananas.

With that tipped pass, the entire dynamic of the game (and season?) changed immediately.

The Spartans were on the verge of going up 10-0 and asserting a dominance over a team that would have, perhaps, sunken into a desert hole.

Instead, the upstart Devils, playing in Herm Edwards’ first biggie at the helm, were immediately rejuvenated and felt like they could stay with the Spartans and maybe even somehow eek out a win.

Michigan State’s offense didn’t come apart at the seams in this specific play – but in this moment, the team went from grabbing hold of a confident swagger to allowing doubt to creep in.

Michigan State managed to take an eventual 13-3 lead late in the 3rd quarter and it appeared as though the Spartans had, finally, taken control of the game.

But if that pass of Lewerke’s was on the money and Dotson hauled it in for six points rather than tipping it into the hands of a Sun Devil defender, would the game have been put away before halftime?

What might that have done for the Spartan offense’s confidence for the remainder of that game – and for the next few games of the season?

Stop and remind yourself that Michigan State had just put up 38 points in the season opening win against Utah State.

Does a touchdown on that 2nd and goal pass from the 6-yard line at Arizona State give that offensive unit an entirely different approach, confidence, and even a sense of calm that would then lead to a stronger performance over the next few weeks?

It’s worth repeating that no single play ever fully determines the outcome of a game – or a season.

But I’m not the only person who thinks back to the 2016 season that ended with that awful 3-9 record and wonders if LJ Scott’s fumble against Wisconsin – a fumble that occurred early in the second quarter as Michigan State was driving and was returned for a touchdown – might have been the first trigger to that season’s downward spiral.

Wisconsin led 13-6 in this particular moment and the Spartans were on the march, looking like they were in the process of asserting themselves against the Badgers.

LJ Scott took the handoff at the Wisconsin 43-yard line, powered his way for 9 yards, and it was looking like Michigan State was in the process of an essential scoring drive.

Instead, LJ coughed up the ball, Wisconsin’s Jack Cichy scooped up the fumble and scampered 66 yards for the score to give the Badgers a 20-6 lead.

Wisconsin pounded Michigan State that day, winning 30-6.

But what happens in that game if Scott doesn’t fumble in that moment, if the Spartans continue on that drive and score to go up 14-13?

That Spartan team was destined for a rough season, we now know – but did the fumble have a larger impact on the team’s entire mindset, vibe, confidence, and chemistry?

How about one more example of a single play’s impact on a season?

Michigan State won it’s 3rd Big Ten Championship under Mark Dantonio in 2015.

How much of an impact did this single play have on that season?

Mark Dantonio has always spoken of how important it is for any team to “find the inches.”

In these plays referenced above, inches separated Michigan State from great success or failure – and vice versa.

Nobody will ever argue about Michigan State finding the inches when Jalen Watts-Jackson was right, smack in the right place at the right time and sent the Spartans’ season in 2015 on a trajectory that led to a Big Ten Championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.

In this 2018 regular season that is now complete, the Spartans didn’t find the inches.

That single play on 2nd and goal in the second quarter at Arizona State might best represent the way the inches matter.

It’s not fair to imply that if Lewerke and Dotson were able to connect on that pass for a touchdown, the Spartans would have had a dramatically different season.

But chances are good that a touchdown in that moment would have led to a victory over the Sun Devils that night – and who knows what sort of an enduring impact that would have had on the 2018 Spartans.

In 2019, Michigan State will need to get back to the business of finding the inches when they matter most.

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