(10/16/03) -- OK, Spartan fans, what a wild ride so far in 2003! We've gotten our money's worth when we paid to ride the John L. Smith bandwagon. but we expected more of a rollercoaster ride a this point than a hot-rod race, didn't we? The Spartans have been on fire out of the gate, and except for a blown engine against Louisiana Tech, they've excelled mid-way down the runway as we head into the most dangerous part of the ride.
MSU is 6-1, and "bowl-eligible". The ES says - "Bowl eligible is BS! Don't settle for less or that's what you'll get! Keep the engines running!"
John L has lulled us into a sense of security that we Spartan fans haven't seen since 1988, the year after we won the Rose Bowl. Sure, we missed an early turn against Rutgers that season, but the Spartans quickly righted themselves to finish the next three seasons in bowl games, including a share of the 1990 Big Ten crown. John L. has this team curiously focused with its hands on the throttle, something we haven't witnessed since the Perles glory years. With the exception of the Bayou Techies (that was a learning experience, a la Bowling Green defeating Purdue and UNLV beating Wisconsin), MSU has beaten the teams it was supposed to beat, and even put the peddle to the metal to pull out mild upsets at Notre Dame and home against Iowa.
Wait. Is this Michigan State we're talking about?
Now comes the hard part. This ride hasn't seen anything yet. Dangerous curves lie ahead and the Spartans will need to remain on course if they are to make it to the finish line in one piece. The combined record of the 15th-ranked Spartans' opponents through the first seven games is 18-25 (.419); Iowa leads the pack at 5-1 (WMU 3-3, Rutgers 3-3, LTU 3-3, ND 2-3, Indiana 1-6, Illinois 1-6). With Smoker at the controls, he needs to fire the engines against four favored, ranked teams (three on the road) with a combined record of 24-10 (.706) -- #19 Minnesota is 6-1, #12 Wisconsin is 6-1, #17 Michigan is 5-1, #8 Ohio State is 5-1, and JoePa is 2-5. This John L.-mobile isn't expected to speed past these motor mouths unscathed.
But, isn't the most fun part of a ride the most dangerous? Isn't the best part when the ride goes where you think it can't, surprising you with even faster speed than you thought it had? Maybe a right turn where you thought there was a left? The Spartans, who expected to ride a broken up jalopy into 2003, have instead surprised the nation by sporting a 440-supercharged engine under the hood to sprint into a tie atop the Big Ten leaderboard after three games. And, with Smoker, they've got a driver who has ample experience but didn't expect to make it behind the wheel.
Be patient. Focus on each turn as they come. Minny is the first test of this twisted road, and John L. has demonstrated he can keep things on course, despite the Spartan's penchant for disaster. But, this Minny team is hungry and disappointed after taking a page out of Spartan history books by snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Gopher coach Glen Mason pissed the game away by closing down the defense and allowing Michigan to open it up when the Wolvies needed to the most; and, by passing on offense when the Gophers had run all over the Wolvies all day long.
Expect Minny to throw out an oil slick to spin the Spartan ride out of control, but this is a good matchup. Minny has the #2-ranked rushing game in the nation, and MSU has the #7-rushing defense in the nation. Something has to give. If the Spartans can hold Minny to under 200 yards on the ground, cause a few turnovers and force the Gophers to the air, it has a chance to pass this Gopher on the course and make it to a 7-1 record into a two-week pit stop to prepare for the Michigan curve. Keep the boys focused on the road ahead, John L., and you'll win this test.
John L., thanks for the memories so far. It's been a fun ride, plenty of speed, a bump here and there and we're feeling the pressure in our gut mount as we've hit third gear. But, what's past is past and those memories are just that. memories. The ES can see the finish line, and he's thrilled that the Spartans know how to drive this hot rod with an ample leader and a disciplined coach. The ES is confident that there will be treasure waiting as we ride the John L. jalopy through the dangerous curves to the finish line.