South Bend, Ind. — A game that was supposed to bring clarity was instead characterized by confusion.
MSU lost to rival Notre Dame for the third straight year in a game all parties involved probably wish they could redo, at least in some capacity.
Maybe the Fighting Irish (3-1 overall) to a lesser degree, as they came away with the 17-13 win, but more on them a little later.
MSU head coach Mark Dantonio definitely does. He made the questionable quarterback decision to bench sophomore starter Connor Cook and bring in senior Andrew Maxwell cold off the bench to try to save the game on the Spartans’ final possession.
That was confusing.
In his first game action since week two, Maxwell fired three incompletions before a pair of penalties backed MSU (3-1) up and he ran for eight yards on fourth-and-20. The decision of a fifth-year player to tuck it and run versus throwing up a prayer, was confusing.
“I was a little disappointed. I don’t know why they pulled me,” said an obviously confused Cook.
Of course, Maxwell might never be in that position if not for another confusing decision by the MSU coaches.
Near the end of the third quarter the game was tied at 10 and the Spartans had been moving the ball successfully on the heels of a 15-play, 75-yard drive resulting in a field goal their previous possession.
MSU unnecessarily went into its bag of tricks and had freshman wide receiver R.J. Shelton get the ball on a sweep before rising up for a pass to senior Bennie Fowler. Notre Dame was not fooled, and Shelton made the rookie mistake of sticking to the plan and tossed an interception into triple coverage.
It was the type of creative flash Spartan fans have been calling for offensively, but it was not needed given the way MSU driving. Gambling on the home run at that time, given the Spartans had found their rare offensive stride, was confusing.
Dantonio also took the blame for running that play after the game.
One of the biggest storylines from the game was the officials, who I’m sure wish they had a second chance at some calls. The biggest head-scratchers were the four defensive pass interference flags on MSU cornerbacks and an additional defensive holding call.
The first on senior corner Darqueze Dennard seemed fair, he didn’t turn his head. The rest, however, including one that negated an interception for Dennard, seemed like 50-50 calls at best.
Normally I’d be concerned about coming off as biased toward MSU, but even the broadcast crew on NBC — Notre Dame football’s exclusive TV partner — was sounding off on the confusing flaggage.
Dantonio was reluctant to address the officiating after the game, but he did say in 30-plus years of coaching he’s never seen that amount of interference calls.
“At the end of the day we still had a chance to win the game and we just didn’t make enough plays to win,” Dennard said.
That brings me back around to the Golden Domers, whose offensive strategy was as mind-boggling as it got. Finding little to no success on the ground against MSU’s defense, Notre Dame’s main threat on offense was chucking it deep and hoping a Spartan defensive back interfered.
It was confusing, but apparently it worked. MSU racked up 115 penalty yards against the Fighting Irish.
In perhaps the most confusing turn of events of all, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly revealed after the game he actually wanted MSU to have the ball in the waning minutes.
Kelly feared MSU’s defense scoring the clinching points — not Cook, Maxwell or any player on the offense.
“I was telling my athletic director, I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives,” Kelly said. “But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”
What’s more confusing for a football team than your opponent fearing the defense scoring points more than the offense?
The late-game drama and narrow margin was reminiscent of the familiar script that spelled doom for the Spartans so many times a season ago.
“No, It does not feel the same,” Dantonio said. “I don’t know how it feels. You lose a close game, it’s tough.”
It sounds like I’m not the only one that’s confused.