The second time QB Tyler O'Connor watched Michigan State's loss to Wisconsin this past Saturday night he wanted to turn his iPad into a Frisbee, launching it across the room from the couch in his apartment.
Part punishment, part preparation, O’Connor had watched the loss -- his first in four games as a starting quarterback for the Spartans -- twice in the hours following the 30-6 beating in East Lansing before friends pulled him off the couch to eat some wings and try stop him from thinking about all the little mistakes eating away at him.
"There are things you have to learn from and obviously things you’re pissed off about," O’Connor said Tuesday. "But you just learn from it."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes to preach about "the inches" that separate winning from losing at college football’s top tier. Saturday’s loss was the most lopsided regular-season defeat since 2010 for Dantonio’s program. Players said they didn’t think the gap felt that big on the field. One first-year starter said he was surprised by how different the scoreboard looked compared to how he felt the two teams were stacking up on a play-by-play basis.
If anything, this past weekend was a lesson for a maturing team that the gap doesn’t have to be that big for a talented opponent to burst through it. Dantonio said he wasn’t upset with the team’s wire-to-wire effort or toughness against a physical Badgers team. Their downfall came from missed opportunities.
O’Connor’s second of three interceptions on the day was the play that most made him want to introduce his iPad to a nearby wall when watching film Saturday night. The Spartans were in the red zone with a chance to pick up some momentum late in the third quarter. Instead, O’Connor rushed a throw into double coverage. A heartbeat later freshman wideout Donnie Corley popped open at the top of his route in the end zone.
Fellow captain Demetrious Cox had a few chances slip through his fingers on Saturday as well. There was the would-be interception that was yanked from the senior safety’s hands that "was probably going to go for six." There were some third-down conversions (Wisconsin converted 7 of 16 third downs, many of them from a considerable distance) that he felt he could have stopped if he trusted his instincts.
“I knew a route was coming that I could have prevented,” Cox said. “It was one of the third-and-longs that I talked about. If I had believed in what I felt was coming I probably would have made a play on that.”
That doesn’t mean Michigan State was closer to victory than the 24-point margin would have you believe. A handful of costly mistakes doesn’t count for “close” at the level the Spartans hope to maintain. Against top 10 competition those missed opportunities will cost a team the game nine times out of 10.
The good news for the Spartans is their veterans have been through this process in the past. Cox said he’s confident that the team will learn to eliminate those gaffes as the season progresses. The culture of toughness and hard work that has become a very real and very consistent asset under Dantonio hasn't disappeared. Learning how to convert that into big plays is the next step for his current team.
The next month of the schedule (Indiana, BYU, Northwestern, Maryland) should allow the Spartans a little more breathing room while developing some of those instincts. And as Dantonio likes to say, all their goals are still in front of them. An early loss to a team outside their division doesn’t eliminate them from the Big Ten hunt.
“We've had a history of doing those things,” Dantonio said. “We need to rely on that history and keep pushing.”
Culture and coach, though, can only push so far. Players have to make the difference in games. Like this past Saturday, that may seem like a manageable gap, but it’s a crucial one to close.