In the case of junior safety Isaiah Lewis, it’s easy to wonder, “What if?”
What if the referee in the inaugural Big Ten championship game last year didn’t flag him for running into the punter? What if he wasn’t instructed to go for the block? What if he had gotten a clean block and the Spartans had scooped up an easy touchdown to take the lead late in the game?
What’s done is done, though. Trailing Wisconsin 42-39 with less than two minutes to play, Lewis was flagged for running into the punter, negating a return by former wide receiver Keshawn Martin that would have put MSU inside the five-yard line to start its drive.
The Spartans went on to lose the game to the Badgers, dashing their Rose Bowl aspirations in the process.
Making matters worse for Lewis, the decisive penalty occurred at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind., less than 10 miles from where he became a prep star at Ben Davis High School.
Despite the gaffe, as one of eight returning starters from a dominant defensive unit in 2011, Lewis and the rest of the defense have set their goals even higher for this season. He said he expects nothing less than a Rose Bowl or national championship for MSU in 2012.
“I hear about it all the time, but I just say, ‘whatever,’ to it,” Lewis said. “I’m going to do better next year. We’re going to be at the game next year, and we’re going to win the game.”
It’s been a long, hard offseason for Lewis, who was the lone man involved in what ended up being a definitive play in the game. And although it’s true that games are never won or lost in one play or by one player, Lewis doesn’t wallow in the disappointment; rather, he lets it slide off his shoulders as he maintains a sharp focus toward this season.
“Yeah, it was hard to take, you know, but I just moved past that,” Lewis said. “It’s a new season, (and) you just forget about it. As a (defensive back), you have to have a short memory, so I’ve just got to forget about that. It’s a new year, and I’m doing new things.”
His teammates and head coach Mark Dantonio — who repeatedly have stated Lewis was told to go for the punt block — while disappointed, didn’t point fingers and were very supportive after the loss to Wisconsin.
“I told him to go get it,” Dantonio said. “That’s my responsibility. If you’re not going to play to win, if you’re not going to take the risk, you know, then you’re playing the wrong game. The things were set up for him to have a clean sweep at the block. So things happened.”
Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell said the sting of losing such a close game in the conference championship has fueled the Spartans’ motivation throughout the offseason and spring practice period, adding that if MSU had beaten Wisconsin that night, its preparation for 2012 might have been completely different.
“Obviously, when you get that close to your goal and fall short, there’s going to be a lot of emotion attached to it,” Maxwell said. “But we can’t hang on the negative emotions; we can’t take away all the bad from that game … and I think the biggest thing we can take from it is we’re not there yet.”