Sparty Like it’s 1999: MSU’s Special 10-2 Team Celebrates Twenty Years Part III
Not Purdue, Not Again!!!
Standing amongst the nation’s elite, the 6-0 Spartans headed into the heart of the 1999 Big Ten season facing unfamiliar challenge: handling big time success. Nick Saban had continually worked for an opportunity to win a Big Ten Championship and national accolades since returning to MSU. Midway through his fifth season as Head Coach, Spartan Football was back in the national spotlight with all their goals in sight. Nearly everything the Spartans had tried to that point of 1999 since the Amp Campbell fumble return had turned to gold. From the opening game comeback through convincing home win over Michigan, the Spartans pretty much had their way with the first half of the season’s schedule. State was hot, but about to be road tested in back to back weeks.
Following his mentor George Perles’ “24 hour rule,” Nick Saban used to either celebrate or bemoan the previous Saturday’s performance quickly before moving onto the next week. The Spartan Staff tried to keep the players looking forward to Purdue after the Michigan win, and tried to keep their feet on the ground after all the nation attention the 6-0 start had accumulated, but something didn’t click. The Spartans weren’t yet ready to handle that level of success. This wasn’t knocking off Ohio State in’98, this was now looking to contend for a National Title. Worse, Purdue really had to have the Michigan State game in 1999. The Boilers were reeling, and pointed to the MSU game as the turning point in their season. They also had a schematic advantage at that time because Boilermaker legend Joe Tiller was running a cutting edge spread Offense that Big Ten defenses had not figured out yet. In fact, they would have a hard time figuring out for a handful of years to come.
The Spartans got drilled by the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, 52-28. Petey Purdue had stuffed a gold and black piece of humble pie right into MSU’s face in a game that was not close for long after the opening kick. Purdue had an unstoppable offensive combination in QB Drew Brees and WR Chris Daniels. The pair scorched the Spartans and snapped State’s perfect season in short order. Brees threw for more than 500 yards while Daniels set Big Ten records with 21 catches and 301 yards receiving. One of the biggest keys to shutting down the spread attack, as we learned about ten years after Purdue blew the doors open with the spread, is the execution of tackling in space. MSU actually previewed that point back in 1999 by demonstrating what would happen if a Defense failed to do so consistently against a top end spread attack. Too often in that Purdue game the Spartans didn’t wrap up tackes, didn’t play their angles well, and failed to communicate as a defensive unit. As a result, they got hammered in record fashion.
This game got away quickly as Brees and company jumped out to a 21-6 lead in the first quarter. Spartan Nation was pretty much stuck in a state of shock. This wasn’t the team that burst out to a 6-0 start. The first half was undisciplined, unmotivated, and easily the worst of the ’99 season. It didn’t get much better from there as the Spartans continued to hurt themselves by turning the ball over six times, and giving up five sacks as they felt the brunt of the momentum stopping loss. For a team that was starting to think Rose Bowl, the Purdue effort quickly clipped those ideas down to mere shrubs.
Saban and his staff had wondered out loud how the upstart Spartans would handle success. The Purdue game didn’t provide the answers they were looking for. The Spartans failed to match the intensity of the home team Boilermakers, who were playing a game they needed to have. If there remains one key to winning on the road some twenty years later, it might just be to match the intensity of the home team, especially out of the gate. MSU never came close that day, and thus lost control of the Big Ten before the 1st Quarter had even come to a close.
What happened at Purdue twenty years ago is even more amazing when you consider what Purdue had done to MSU in the prior two years. MSU endured a bitter one-point home loss to Purdue in ‘98, and a wretched come from ahead loss late in West Lafayette in 1997. That ‘97 loss at Purdue still regarded as one of the most difficult in the last 40 years of Michigan State Football. Coming off two massive disappointments at the hands of the Boilers, MSU still didn’t come to play at Purdue in 1999. That’s how high it got soaring half way through the 1999 for Spartan Football. Twenty years later, many are still probably wondering why MSU didn’t play Purdue better in 1999.
Once is a Fluke, Twice is a Coincidence?
After the 52-28 swagger stomping loss at Purdue, the Spartans road through the Big Ten did not get any easier. MSU had to go west again the following week, but this time to one of the toughest environments in the Big Ten, Camp Randall stadium. The upstart Badgers, who went onto win the Big Ten in ’99, were anything but the ideal follow up to Purdue. Wisconsin featured a powerful and physically punishing team that was building its way to make a run at a couple of Rose Bowls.
The Spartans simply could not stop Wisconsin’s seminal big running back Ron Dayne. While Dayne had started the season slowly, he was trending to find top form heading into the MSU game. So were the rest of the Badgers, who had just rolled their prior two home opponents by a slight margin of 99-10. To counter, Spartan Defensive Coordinator Bill Miller’s squad had only allowed 279 rushing yards in its first seven games, the fewest in the country. Before Wisconsin, the Spartan Coaching Staff felt they were ready to compete with the Big Ten’s best. They were wrong.
Early in the 1st Quarter Dayne exploded for a 51 yard touchdown and never looked back. That quick haymaker seemed to defeat any hope of shutting down the Badger running game. Spartan Nation faithful remember watching that run unfold and getting a sinking feeling this one could get ugly. The Spartans were shell shocked, and could not recover that day. Dayne went onto bully his way to 152 first-half yards, shutting down any hope of a bounce back Spartan victory. It would end in a 40-10 beat down. Spartan Football was suddenly reeling.
Most Valuable Bye Week Ever
The Spartans had done a lot of things right in the first six games of the year, but they did nearly enough wrong in the following two games to derail the whole season. The placement of the ’99 Bye Week turned out to be critically important to this program, and likely sits among the most valuable in school history. The Spartans could not afford another loss at that point, let alone another embarrassing in-conference thumping. It was imperative the team identified their mistakes, learned lessons from them, and only focused ahead to the final three games of the regular season. All three were winnable, but certainly could have been lost too, considering the 7th and 8th game efforts of 1999.
Having been blown out in two straight conference road games, it was time for MSU football to regroup. They had to regroup. For a team that had risen from unranked to 5th in the nation, there had been far more positives in the 6-2 start than negatives. But Spartan Football badly needed a mental break just to remember that, and maybe more importantly, to believe in it. When you’re talking about players between 18 and 22 years old, their psyche isn’t anything near that of a level headed-mature adult. As the ’99 team reflects on that special year now twenty years down the line, you have to believe they look at things a bit differently than they might have during that Bye Week. That week was key in restoring the confidence that the team was a lot more like the 6-0 squad that started the season off than the one that got trounced in the last two weeks before their Saturday off.
There was still a lot to play for, including an outside shot at a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl bid. But the momentum was headed one way at that point, the wrong way, and headed there fast. Saban said it would ultimately be up to the players to determine the outcome of their season, which was an interesting comment considering Saban was considered a rather dictator-like Coach in 1999. It’s up to you to decide if Saban has really changed that much in the last twenty seasons. Something worked during that Bye Week, and his team was able to reset, retool, and refocus to finish.
Bounce Back on the Buckeyes
The Spartans came off the Bye Week looking like they could not wait to play in Spartan Stadium again. It was time to get the ’99 season back on track by hosting the revenge minded Ohio St. Buckeyes. Saban called the Ohio St. game the defining moment of MSU’s season. It was a game they had to have after the hot start, and quick collapse. Had the OSU game not gone well, the ’99 season would have threatened to follow a familiar storyline for Spartan fans of that day and time: a fast start followed by long and painful crash.
It’s fair to say the John Cooper Buckeyes never recovered from the Spartans’ ’98 upset victory in Columbus. Had Ohio St. won in ’98, they likely would’ve won the National Title. Cooper might have coached at Ohio St. a while longer, and he definitely would’ve left Columbus with a dramatically different coaching legacy. That bitter upset sent the John Cooper era in a declining direction, and by latter 1999, the Buckeyes were lighter on talent and experience than in previous years.
The Spartans took the field to a notably warm and supportive reception on yet another windy, but sunny day in East Lansing. Everyone knew the Spartans had to get off to a good star that day, and had to get back to executing the fundamentals with an attention to detail. MSU game planned to beat Ohio St. in a plodding and straight forward fashion. After being beaten so badly at the point of attack by Wisconsin, the Spartans made it their top priority to win the Ohio State game at the line of scrimmage.
Saban wanted to force the Buckeyes to bring down Running Back T.J. Duckett, a tackling task that was proving to be more and more difficult. By the Ohio St. game, Duckett had developed into more of a Running Back than just a big and fast guy running with the ball. He had begun to build some of the essential Running Back skills of reading defenses and hitting holes. Though far from a polished product, Duckett was on his way to becoming the dominant feature back he would end up at MSU. Remember, Duckett had never really played the position before the fall of 1999. Twenty years on now, there’s still probably a lot of folks in Spartan Nation that do not realize that fact.
Saban also wanted to put QB Bill Burke in a position to manage the Ohio St. game without feeling like he had to play above his head in order to beat the Buckeyes. This strategy would guide the Spartans through the rest of their regular season. There’s a big difference between primarily relying on your Quarterback to make plays and putting your passer in position to take advantage of big plays when they’re out there, having been tactically set up by detailed planning. The former usually leads to a College Quarterback forcing the issue and making costly mistakes. The latter often puts a team in position to get the most out of its talents and abilities.
The Spartans stepped up to the challenge and dusted Ohio St. off 23-7 in a game OSU Head Coach John Cooper said was never as close as the score looked. The Buckeyes had been dismantled and embarrassed from sideline to sideline. MSU completely outplayed and out worked OSU at the line of scrimmage. The last time Ohio State Football had produced less total offense was in 1963. Michigan State’s swarming defense held the Buckeyes to just 61 yards in the 1st Half, a short 9 on the ground. OSU didn’t even cross the 50 yard line in the opening thirty-minutes.
The Spartan rush defense responded to the Ron Dayne embarrassment by stuffing the Bucks to their worst overall rushing performance since 1965. But it wasn’t just the running game that was suffocated. Ohio State quarterbacks were sacked six times. “They were bringing guys from everywhere – linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties, and we didn’t pick them up,” OSU Head Coach John Cooper said after the beat down. “There were plays where we were in max protect and still couldn’t get the ball off. We never gave our quarterback a chance.” Both Buckeye Quarterbacks agreed. “They were blitzing on every play,” said QB Austin Moherman, who replaced starting QB Steve Bellisari. “The Quarterback doesn’t have a chance like that. We didn’t have time to make our reads or find our receivers.”
Rarely has an MSU Defense ever been as dominating of an Ohio St. team. Twenty years later, that effort still stands out as major memory of 1999. Though not the same caliber as the fine ’98 team, theses were still the Ohio St. Buckeyes. And MSU had just dominated a prominent program in a game they had to have. The special season of 1999 was quickly back on track, and building towards a dramatic and completely unforeseeable finish.
Be sure to follow our terrific Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp on Twitter @JPSpartan
Want the latest breaking MSU news delivered straight to your email for FREE? Sign up for the DAILY Spartan Nation newsletter WHEN YOU CLICK RIGHT HERE! Don’t miss any of the latest up to the second updates on Michigan State Sports when you follow on Twitter @HondoCarpenter