Two weeks is an eternity in a football season, especially when a team is losing.
Two weeks ago, things were bleak for two of our state’s most prominent football teams.
Michigan State football fell to 3-5 after it lost to its archrival in Ann Arbor and then the Spartans not only looked like they lost control but perhaps also lost their way as a program inside the Michigan Stadium tunnel after the game.
A few hours later at Ford Field, the Lions fell to 1-6 after they blew a 10-point halftime lead to the Miami Dolphins and lost their fifth straight game, as well as much of their fans’ patience.
Two weeks ago, nothing was certain about these the Spartans and Lions. Anything, really, was on the table because cold streaks often lead to hot seats. Of course, Dan Campbell doesn’t have the luxury of having the same 95 million reasons to feel as secure as Mel Tucker does in East Lansing.
But there they were. Two teams that entered the season with high hopes. The Lions came in riding high on the goodwill wave created by HBO’s “Hard Knocks” reality show that seemed a lot more like a fever dream after the loss to the Dolphins.
The Spartans came into the season with a No. 14 preseason ranking the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, hoping to prove last year’s success wasn’t only built on the legs of Kenneth Walker III.
Now, after two straight wins, there’s a glimmer of hope for both. On Monday morning, I heard the hope and slight disbelief from people.
Can you believe the Lions won yesterday?
I can’t believe Michigan State won again, even with all those guys suspended.
It felt like a ping-pong match of giddiness and disorientation. Are these really the same teams we’ve been following the whole season? Are these the Lions who lost to the Patriots, 29-0? Are these the Spartans who lost to Minnesota, 34-7?
Now we have to ask ourselves a different question. Are these really the Lions the who beat their division rivals, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, in consecutive weeks? Are these really the Spartans who beat then-No. 14 Illinois on the road, 23-15, by out-defending the defensive-minded Illini on the road, then put an old-school Big Ten beating on Rutgers, 27-21?
Two teams on the ropes have suddenly become two teams climbing out of a hole.
“I think we’ve been just really resilient with all of the stuff that’s come our way,” MSU defensive tackle Jacob Slade told reporters. “We just had nothing left to lose, so I think we showed that the past two games we played.”
“No matter what happened, no matter what our record indicated, guys just kept believing,” Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah told reporters in Chicago on Sunday. “I think when you have a team like that that has an unwavering belief in the things that are being preached from top to bottom, I think you’ll get good results. Sometimes it’s a lagging process, but hard work is undefeated.”
With all these questions about the Lions and the Spartans, about their identities and their struggles and now their sudden triumphs, it begs the question: Which team has had the more impressive two-game winning streak?
It’s not an easy answer because their situations are so different. The Lions are dealing with generational misery. The Spartans are trying to prove they aren’t a fluke and become a consistent power.
When it comes to straight-up facts, the Lions finally left the NFC North basement and even briefly inhabited second place until the Packers won in overtime Sunday night. Their 3-6 record equaled last year’s win total and Sunday’s win in Chicago was the first road victory of Campbell’s tenure, as well as his first winning streak.
The Spartans improved to 5-5, beat their first ranked opponent of the season, and need only one win in their final two games against Indiana this week or at Penn State next week to become bowl eligible.
In the grand scheme, both streaks validated the teams’ trajectory under their head coaches. The Lions’ streak ended a five-game skid and all but ensured Campbell won’t be fired midseason, even if the Lions suffer a Thanksgiving bludgeoning by the Bills.
The Packers and Bears aren’t good teams, but in the second year of the Lions rebuild beating bad teams is what they are supposed to do while making moderate improvements, like playing better defense and with more discipline. The Lions were never going to beat elite teams this season without some fluke luck. But let’s also not forget they’ve lost four games to division-leading teams by a total of 14 points.
But the Spartans’ situation is entirely unique. There would have been every reason in the world for them to turn into a train wreck after the tunnel incident, lose expectedly at Illinois and then return to Spartan Stadium and fall to Rutgers in their first home game in nearly a month to a chorus of boos and cavalcade of questions about Tucker’s leadership and the future of the program.
For MSU to rise up and rally from such adversity says everything you need to know about Tucker’s command of his players and how focused he remains about the direction he has the team headed, even if it doesn’t add up to a bowl berth this season.
Since Tucker isn’t prone to big talk or big pronouncements, we should leave it to one of his rising young stars to sum up the Spartans’ approach during their adversity and now their success.
“You gotta treat everything like it’s national championship,” linebacker Cal Haladay, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second straight week, told reporters. “You gotta prepare like that.
“And I think that this is a big win, and we got some momentum going in the past two weeks. I think that’ll just hopefully translate and keep rolling.”
It’s hard to imagine it won’t for Michigan State, if not this season then at least the next, when that momentum might help them move on from transfer portals and tunnels.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.