In fact, the Spartans did not play with any emotion at all until late in the fourth quarter when they briefly tied the game at 20-20 before losing on a field goal in the waning moments.
For the second time in two years, the Spartans once again lost on homecoming to an inferior opponent and looked lethargic at best in doing so.
When you think that there are a limited amount of games a college player plays before heading into the doldrums of a regular working citizen, it would stand to reason that these players would find a way to get motivated and play with the passion and desire that was clearly lacking on Saturday.
However, it was apparent that both coaches and and players didn't show up until it was too late. In fact, if Illinois had not had a questionable call reversal on what officials claimed was an attempted pass by Drew Stanton, the game would have been over much earlier than it was.
We mentioned in our 'Game Keys' that Illinois could only threaten MSU in two key areas, one being against the Spartan secondary which tends to lose focus, and along the defensive line of Illinois, which has played well this year.
Wouldn't you know it, those were both key areas in the Spartans loss to Illinois. On one play, Juice Williams fumbled a snap, recovered the ball, and threw it over the head of Spartan defensive back Greg Cooper, who couldn't wrap up the tackle on the Illini receiver and Illinois had it's first touchdown.
Later on in the game, as per previous games, an opponent used a double-pass to score a touchdown over the scrambling recovery attempt of Demond Williams. You can't fault Williams totally, it was a trick play, and earlier in the game he made a play on a ball for an interception and took it to the house for a "pick six." Besides, making a play on a ball in the secondary has been a rarity for MSU defensive backs, and with the offense sputtering, MSU needed all the points they could get.
Still, with as many times as a receiver has snuck in the secondary unchecked this year, you might of thought there would be a defender near by.
The Illini defensive line should be given credit too, as they harrassed Drew Stanton all day, grabbed five sacks and eventually forced him out of the game with bruised ribs.
The offensive line for the Spartans decided that they weren't going to commit many holding or false start penalties today, however, they also decided they weren't going to block anyone as well. Time after time the Illini defensive line blew past the Spartan offensive line to nail Drew Stanton or force an errant throw. Stanton didn't help his cause with some mishandling of the ball either, especially near the goal line early in the game when his fumble cost the Spartans six points.
Stanton's decision making as of late has been questionable at best as well, as he continues to force throws into coverage or make a wrong decision or read. Replays show that Javon Ringer would have have had a chance at scoring had he received the pitch that Stanton fumbled on.
Speaking of Ringer, he also was knocked out of the game with an injury to his knee after catching a screen pass. It can be a dangerous play, as years ago Lorenzo White developed a deep thigh injury on a similar play and lost effectiveness.
Ringers injury at first appeared to be a torn MCL but now is considered a sprain knee, which leaves MSU without not only a homerun threat in the backfield, but a loss kick returner, a punt edge rusher, and of course, even more damage to his repaired knee.
Dave Baldwin blamed himself after the Notre Dame game and decided that the Spartans needed to call more screen plays this week. Now, the Spartans are without their difference maker. Throw in offensive guard Daniel Zynn's broken ankle, and Pete Clifford's sore knee, and you have an offensive line banged up with UM and OSU coming up.
We mentioned in our "Keys to The Season" that actually losing Ringer would be more devastating than losing Drew Stanton. Now you can see why. Brian Hoyer and his rocket arm did a credible job in replacing the injured Stanton, but MSU loses a ton of speed with Ringer out of the game.
A lack of passion and true respect for inferior opponents has plagued the John L. Smith era at not only MSU, but other schools as well. He can get his team up to play the big boys, although MSU doesn't always win, but he also makes lesser opponents look like world beaters, like a Louisiana Tech, or a Rutgers for instance.
Don't think for a minute that this loss doesn't hurt, especially when one game can make a difference on what bowl game you might go to. Bowl game? Heck, it's still unsure if the Spartans with their unispired play will even having a winning record at seasons end.
I clearly blame both the coaches and the players for this loss. The coaches have the responsibility of respecting an opponent and getting the kids ready to play, which they clearly did not do.
The players have the responsibility of stepping up and showing they can play, and this falls on the leaders of this team, guys like Drew Stanton, Cliff Ryan, Kyle Cook, David Herron, Matt Trannon and others to have the pride to play hard and with passion for 60 minutes.
Good leaders have the ability to inspire their teammates to that kind of effort not once in a while, but week in and week out. Not just for the fans or alumni, but for themselves. Drew Stanton said that the Spartans would play four quarters and there would be no hangover. Apparently nobody is listening to him on his own team, so his leadership skills have to fall into question.
Perhaps Stanton doesn't have the killer instinct it takes to win despite his obvious skill. More than once in a game he'll be joking with the opposition. This happened again after an Illini player said something to him after Stanton slide to the ground while scrambling to avoid a hit.
It was a smart play by Stanton, but both players jumped up and were joking and patting each other on the helmet. Sure that's part of Stanton's good natured personality, but I would want my quarterback focusing on the game, not on whether he has the courage to take a hit in the opponents mind.
John L. Smith can climb Mount Kilimanjaro, fly in a fighter jet, and run with the bulls in Spain, and I'm sure that is impressive, however, Spartan fans would settle for just getting his team ready to play football on a Saturday against an overmatched opponent, something he gets paid a lot of money to do.
It's all about wanting to win or expecting to win. Smith has said he "wants to win." I'm not sure that is the same thing, for in wanting to win, he prepared players for protecting the center of the field from a flag planting by Notre Dame last week in case of a loss. When you expect to win, things go right for you at the end of games.
This week, once again, the Illini headed to the center of the field to plant a flag before being stopped by the Spartans in a near rumble. It has to be said that I think the Spartans spent more energy, enthusiasm, and passion in guarding the center of the field than they did in trying to win the game.
In the end, the ultimate blame has to go to the coaches however, and not just John L. Smith, but the assistant coaches as well. Players are a reflection of the personality of their coaches. If a coach has put the previous game behind him and is ready to coach, the players will be ready to play. If he hasn't, they won't.
If the coaches don't have the fire in the belly to play an opponent, then they won't either. That's why this vicious cycle keeps repeating itself over and over. If coaches tell players to be ready and their non-verbal cues say something different, then there is a problem.
Like it or not, these kids are 18 to 21 years old, and you are not only their coach, but the resident Psychologist in getting these players emotionally ready to play every week. In fact, that is now the biggest hurdle the coaches have the rest of the season is getting these guys emotionally ready to play. Hopefully someone can do a good imitation of Dr.Phil.
So were these guys over the Irish loss? In Smith's press conference after the game, he was asked about the scrum at the center of the field. He then slapped himself and made a reference to being hit, a clear jab at Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis.
So, even after another tough loss, he was still thinking about the Notre Dame game, and that's why you can expect to find John L. Smith and his staff on the hot seat if they aren't there already. In fact, you can give credit to Notre Dame for two victories, since sadly, the Spartan players and coaches heads were somewhere else today.