Column: Who are the Spartans and who will show up on the field?
Indiana kicker Griffin Oakes’ 33-yard field goal attempt hung in the air. And for those precious few seconds, Spartan fans collectively held their breath.
After all, MSU’s dreams, its aspirations of reaching another College Football Playoff, depended on the kick. Sure, the 30-6 thumping by Wisconsin a week earlier destroyed confidence. But, if the green and white won all of its games and the Big Ten, the Spartans would have proved their worth.
So then, as Oakes’ kick veered left and ultimately missed, MSU fans gasped in excitement — new life, another opportunity to win the game in double overtime.
But wait — yellow penalty flags. The officials made the call: personal foul, leaping, they said. MSU’s breath of life instead transferred to Indiana, as it had another chance to win the game.
After a pair of run plays to inch closer to the end zone, the yards were all Indiana needed. Now the Hoosiers were just a 20-yard kick away from victory, Oakes wouldn’t miss this time. His field goal split the uprights, and that was it. The Spartans squandered a 14-0 lead, and at the same time, their dreams.
But that was just barely the beginning of MSU’s long, national nightmare.
At one point, MSU held all four of its rivalry trophies after a thrilling win over Notre Dame. The Spartans were supposed to be great again. Then the Old Brass Spittoon was lost to the Hoosiers.
The Paul Bunyan Trophy against Michigan and the Land Grant Trophy against Penn State were the next two to depart East Lansing.
Three of MSU’s four rivalry trophies were lost in the dreadful 3-9 season. And for good reason.
Sugarcoating it won’t do the disaster of the 2016 season justice. The Spartans were awful, incredibly so. Nationwide, they became the butt of jokes on their way to the baffling record.
Those around the program speak of bouncing back from an on-field product that oozed failure, but the prospects are seemingly slim.
Optimistic fans quickly point to the stats, MSU held a lead in every game it played in 2016. In 10 of its 12 games, the squad even scored first. Coming out of the gates wasn’t the problem, the Spartans did fine gaining the lead.
Holding onto it, that’s a whole different story, a separate territory itself. That comes from discipline, a mental edge the Spartans so desperately lacked all year.
Which then begs the question — who are the Spartans?
Right now, it’s hard to say. So many of last year’s leaders are gone, the face of the old regime. The team had already descended into an identity crisis, and that was before all of the off-season issues.
However, the leaders of this team have consistently spoken of accountability, and that’s an aspect they’re striving for. Murmurs of a lack of leadership in last year’s locker room were rampant, and a very real threat.
Which team will show up come kickoff? The same team that lost to Indiana? And then later to a horrible Illinois squad, despite out-gaining the Fighting Illini 490-304 yards?
Or are the Spartans instead the ones who actually played Ohio State and Michigan tough? In both those games, MSU had no business hanging tough against the premier teams of the Big Ten.
They still did it, though. The differences between the two sides of MSU are staggering. On one hand had the Spartans laughably incompetent, easily one of the worst teams in the nation.
But once those rivalry games rolled around, something clicked and a fire was lit.
Spartan optimists will tell you MSU will bounce back, a team capable of competing again in the Big Ten. Of course, the skeptics will fire right back, pointing out the glaring holes in the roster and on the field.
We won’t know the answer against Bowling Green, or even by the time Iowa rolls into town for the Spartans’ fourth game. The goal is consistency and MSU must show enough discipline to make amends to a waiting fan base.