On a mostly warm and sunny Florida New Year’s Day, the Capital One Bowl snowballed fast on Michigan State Football.  By the end of the 1st half, the Spartans were down 28-0, and the season’s hopes to go out with a winning Bowl effort were completely cooked in the Citrus Bowl sun.  By the end of the game, Spartan Nation was left wondering whether this loss was as bad ,or worse, than classics like Nick Saban’s ’95 Nebraska loss (50-10), the ‘96 Sun Bowl (38-0), or perhaps the ’97 Aloha Bowl (51-23).  Today’s game is certainly bound to end up in that conversation.

Early in the 2nd quarter, when trailing only 14-0, the Spartans were less than 3 yards from cutting the Crimson Tide lead in half.  After Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Jr. QB) had found Keith Nichol (Rs.-Jr. WR) to set up the manageable 3rd and Goal, MSU had a pretty golden shot to get back in the game.  If the Spartans could’ve capitalized, the game would’ve almost certainly taken a very different turn.  But sadly for Spartan Nation, the already growing snowball was about to turn into an uncontrollable avalanche.

As MSU broke their huddle on the 3rd and Goal, Spartan Coaches tried to call a time because the Offense was disorganized, and needed to get Mark Dell (Sr. WR) off the field.  Yet, the Coaches could not get the Officials attention before a flag was thrown for an Illegal Formation.  Then on 3rd and Goal from the Alabama 8, Alabama landed a crippling blow to the Spartans’ hopes in the form of MSU’s second turnover inside the Bama 30 for the half.

Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw (Jr. LB) came around the corner and absolutely hammered Cousins in the backside, sending the ball stumbling and bobbling through the Spartans and Crimson Tide all the way back to the MSU 38.  Instead of celebrating a TD to cut the Bama lead in half, MSU was forced to punt on a shell shocking 4th and Goal from the Bama 38.  That series of plays would be the Spartans last opportunity to remain competitive for the day.

After Aaron Bates (Sr. P) punted into the end zone for the touchback, MSU’s back was firmly placed against the wall.  Clearly playing “downhill,” Alabama went for the jugular and drove 80 yards in 2:22, and 7 plays, to stretch their lead out to 21-0, and essentially knock out Michigan State for good.

Mid-way through the 2nd quarter of a football game, 21-0 and 14-7 are such an incredibly different reality.  Everything in the Citrus Bowl had completely turned to Crimson.  Everything was going Alabama’s way.  And Michigan State, for only the second time on the season, couldn’t find anything in reply.

The little snowball that began to form on the opening drive’s 3rd and 10-Pass Interference penalty on Chris L Rucker (Sr. CB) had suddenly exploded into an avalanche of Alabama fortune, momentum, and confidence.  This one looked headed for a big time blow out.

After another 3 and out, which saw the Spartans lose 10 yards on the series, Alabama took only 3 plays to stretch their lead into a complete KO (unlike their recent 3 score collapse against Auburn), and 28-0 lead.

The 1st half was really all that there was to the 2011 Capital One Bowl.  The 49-7 final did nothing more to add to the surprising dominance Alabama showed for the day.  The Spartans simply suffered that ugly combination of beating themselves, and getting beaten by a better team.  That combination almost inevitably results in a big time blow out.  The Spartans couldn’t get a break early when they needed one, and couldn’t make a play early when they needed one.  Alabama did both…often.

The final result was a blow out that very few saw coming in the Citrus Bowl today, but the final margin (42) really didn’t matter much after Alabama had already taken the lead by 3 scores.  The Crimson Tide couldn’t possibly play any more “downhill” from that point, they were already rolling at full speed.

The Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

The Don Treadwell era is over now at Michigan State as Coach Tread now heads off to the “Cradle of Coaches,” and his alma mater, to lead the Miami (OH) Red Hawks (or Redskins if you’d rather) into the future.  This was not the exit he wanted to make.  It was arguably Treadwell’s worst performance as an Offensive Coordinator at MSU.  It was the kind of performance that will likely stick with Treadwell, and the Spartan Offense, for a very long time.

What Treadwell’s departure means for the Spartan Offense isn’t exactly clear as of today, but Spartan Nation should not expect major changes moving into what looks to be a very exciting 2011.  The bulk of the Offensive skill unit returns, as Big Ten Champions, and looks to take another step forward next year into the Big Ten’s elite.

Today might have been the worst Right Tackle-Left Tackle performance Spartan Nation has ever seen.  Alabama didn’t use any special tricks or techniques today to completely overwhelm the MSU Offensive Line, they just simply pushed them off the ball at the point of attack, to the point that Alabama was able to knock both Cousins and Andrew Maxwell (Rs.-Fr. QB) out of the game.  Keith Nichol ended up having to take snaps under center as an “emergency” type QB, which was definitely not part of the game plan coming in.

The Offensive Line unit will have to continue to take a step forward if MSU wants to continue to compete for Big Ten Championships, and begin again to compete in BCS caliber Bowl Games.

Defense

The Defense struggled early to get off the field on 3rd down.  People will look back at this game and point to the Rucker Pass Interference penalty on the game’s first drive as the beginning of the end.  By the end, Alabama had hung 546 yards of Offense, and 49 points on the Spartans today.

Yet, when your Offense scores only 7 for the Bowl Game, it’s a little difficult to gauge exactly how poorly the Defense performed.  Today, however, the final tally for Alabama said more than enough.

Special Teams

The Special Teams unit was the Spartans’ unit of the year, as we’ve previously discussed this season.  Today, they didn’t get a chance to do anything really, other than punt.  Next year promises to be another strong year for Spartan Special Teams as Dan Conroy (Rs.-So K) and Kevin Muma (Rs.-Fr. K) return, and the Spartans look to break in Mike Sadler (Rs. P) to replace Aaron Bates (Sr. P).

Keshawn Martin (Jr. WR) and Bennie Fowler (Rs.-Fr. WR) should head the Spartan return units in 2011, and should be again amongst the very best in the Big Ten conference.  Make no mistake, 2010 put Spartan Special Teams on the map (Little Giants, Mouse Trap, Punt Block), but 2011 should be a very fine encore performance.

Overall

Sometimes, College Football games can get away from you in a hurry.  This year, Spartan Nation felt that sudden pain twice.  Once in the form of an Iowa Hawkeye blur, and again today in a ferocious avalanche of Crimson Tide.  Yet, in the end, you are as good a team as your record reads.  The 2010 Spartans are an 11-2 football team.  They are Big Ten Champions for the first time in 20 years.  They played again in a New Year’s Day Bowl.  It was more than a very fine year.

Though nothing that happened today in Orlando did anything to take from the 2010 Spartans’ accomplishments, it’s sure to leave an extremely bitter (but hopefully soon inspiring) taste in the mouths of Spartan Football, and Spartan Nation.

Many could look at this day as a national embarrassment on College Football’s biggest day of the year, against its most bitter and personal foe (Nick Saban).  Yet, in reality, it was more likely a better team (Alabama), who built momentum early, caught nearly all the breaks early to jump on a team that began to also beat themselves, and went on to “run it up,” perhaps in hopes that their fan base might forget their recent 24 point meltdown to their absolute biggest rival (Auburn).

Although the Crimson Tide could not have looked any better today against MSU, I doubt that many College Football fans will suddenly forget the all-time Iron Bowl meltdown that’s already cast the longest shadow over Alabama Football for 2010.  Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide could not have scored enough points today to undo that permanent stain.

But after the Spartans’ painful crushing finale today, and 42 point final deficit, the 2011 Capital One Bowl still only counts as one loss for Spartan Football.  It may feel like more than one loss right now, but it’ll only go down in the records books to count as one.

On what was a perhaps the most forgettable day in recent Spartan Football history, soon Spartan Nation will once again enjoy the 2010 season highlights over and over again, in what was truly an unforgettable and special season for Michigan State Football.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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