For the greater part of Saturday, Michigan State appeared locked in on taking home a major nonconference win.
National stage. National moment. National win. Opportunity missed and it was closer than the 46-27 final score indicated.
But words like close and almost do not have any quantitative value. They certainly have little meaning in college football and these days, they have little meaning to Michigan State.
Before the past five years, being competitive in a game on the road against a team like Oregon might have been a significant moral victory. Ten years ago, it would have been essentially unheard of. That ship has sailed right out of East Lansing.
It is not about being competitive in a big game against a major opponent, but coming away with wins. The Spartans program is past moral victories.
“Most definitely (we are),” tight end Josiah Price said. “We are very frustrated about his loss and we gotta rebound. We gotta be better.
”We can’t make another mistake like this down the road.”
It is hard to pinpoint when that moment happened for the Spartans, but somewhere along the line the concept of a moral victory lost meaning. It probably came somewhere in the midst of back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, but it could have been sooner or later.
At some point, though, victories of the moral sense had to turn to literal, figurative victories. That is what perennial Top-10 teams do and teams that want to be in that category believe about themselves. They win often year in and year out. Michigan State has annually been playing itself into a team of that caliber and showed it is right there with No. 3 Oregon – where it expects to be.
That is surely what Mark Dantonio and Mark Hollis expected when the game was scheduled in early 2012. It is hard to imagine the conversation being about anything but Michigan State being on the same level as Oregon. Most likely, part of it was about the stage for the Spartans and being ready to play at the level of winning a marquee game in a difficult road environment against a very talented team.
You schedule a game like that for those reasons. It was not a measuring stick for Michigan State. It was a game to win for a team ready to win.
Michigan State looked like it was going to do that going into halftime and for the first part of the third quarter, but it is no moral victory to compete anymore.
National programs – or programs that are trying to cement themselves as a national powerhouse – have no need for finding a silver lining. National programs expect to win each and every week, no matter who lines up across from them.
”Our program is in good shape,” Dantonio said after the loss. “We are not going to fall away.”
It is and it won’t as long as the Spartans continue being past moral victories, they will continue to be in good shape in having the status of being a national program.