Big Ten

On three-game losing streak, what's the deal with the Spartans?

tom-izzo-0121.png

On three-game losing streak, what's the deal with the Spartans?

Not long ago, the Michigan State Spartans were the No. 1 team in the country.

But the Big Ten season has brought with it challenges for Tom Izzo's team, and it's currently on a three-game slide no one could've predicted just a few weeks ago.

Wednesday was the latest loss, a shocking 72-71 defeat at home at the hands of surging Nebraska. And it was defense, or lack thereof, that bit the Spartans, the Huskers shooting 50 percent from the field, the highest opponent field-goal percentage Michigan State has allowed all season. Nebraska had two runs of 13-0 in this one, including the one that won the game. It was a 56-51 Spartan lead with about 12 minutes to play, but 13 straight points by the Huskers gave them an eight-point edge with eight and a half minutes left. Eron Harris and Denzel Valentine hit last-minute 3-pointers to bring Michigan State within two and one, respectively, but Nebraska didn't trail after its mid-period surge.

Additionally, Nebraska turned 10 Michigan State turnovers into 10 points, and the Huskers had a 32-24 advantage in points in the paint.

Michigan State struggled with its shot, shooting 42.1 percent on the game. Bryn Forbes, the team's resident sharpshooter, took plenty of postgame heat for a 1-for-8 performance with just three points in 35 minutes.

[MORE BIG TEN: Northwestern comes close but falls to Terps in overtime]

But the trend is worse than the single outcome for the Spartans. Wednesday's loss followed an unexpected defeat to middling Wisconsin, which was preceded by Michigan State's second loss to Iowa in as many meetings this season. Undefeated after 13 non-conference games, the Spartans are just 3-4 in conference play.

So what's the deal?

"Of course my team’s not feeling comfortable right now," Izzo said after Wednesday's game. "I don’t mean that as harsh as it sounds. Look, we’ve gone through a lot with this team, you know. ... We’re 16-4, I said that when we were 16-3 that we’re not throwing in the towel. The last two games, if you ask me — and please, the Nebraska people here, they did a hell of a job. Good coach, good team. But, we were up. And we didn’t play smart enough. And then we just didn’t play smart enough at Wisconsin. Calls went against us there, tough calls here. We didn’t play smart enough, and we lost.

"We did execute. We did do some positive things. We did some things that I think are going to benefit us. ... I haven’t lost the team. Haven’t lost the locker room. Nobody is upset about this and that, we just got to get more guys playing a little bit better and maybe a little bit smarter."

[MORE BIG TEN: Illini embarrassed by hot-shooting Hoosiers in blowout loss]

There has been a significant amount of injury-induced upheaval of late. Valentine, who looked like a player of the year candidate during the non-conference season and had a great 24-point effort Wednesday, missed four games with a knee injury. But strangely, the Spartans went 3-1 without their best player and have gone 1-3 since his return.

Michigan State lost point guard Tum Tum Nairn Jr. prior to the loss against Wisconsin and was without him again Wednesday. While he doesn't score a lot of points, he runs the show and plays good defense, two things the Spartans could have used Wednesday. His timetable for return is unknown.

Big man Gavin Schilling missed the season's first 11 games, and he was recently swapped out of the starting lineup for Matt Costello, who's been playing terrifically since the beginning of league play. But Costello rolled his ankle and couldn't finish Wednesday's game.

So there's a reason Izzo's team is not comfortable. The lineup and the rotation seem to be changing on a game-by-game basis of late. And having to adjust on their feet might be what has the Spartans in a funk.

"It’s hard to keep changing the lineup, and don’t even ask me why I do it. I don’t have a choice right now," Izzo said. "It’s hard to do that and let everybody be comfortable."

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]

Michigan State is hardly alone. Top-ranked teams losing has been the theme of this college basketball season, and the Spartans are one of a whopping seven ranked teams that have lost just since the latest rankings came out on Monday afternoon. Duke is on a three-game losing streak, West Virginia has dropped back-to-back games and Kansas has lost two of its last three.

Certainly Michigan State has dropped games it wasn't expected to against Wisconsin and Nebraska (the two losses to Iowa look perfectly reasonable, as the Hawkeyes look like the Big Ten's best team). But recent history tells us the Spartans could be fine. Just last season, when Michigan State made the seventh Final Four appearance of the izzo Era, there were unexpected results. The Spartans lost games to Texas Southern, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota. Then they came a win away from playing for a national title.

It's Izzo's job now to get his team to bounce back, which is easier said than done with a great Maryland team coming to East Lansing this weekend. But he's confident his players will do just that.

"It’s a very good team, and there are really a lot of good guys. Everybody’s pressing a little bit. We’re just going to have a do a better job as a staff," he said. "I know how to get to this team and this team will bounce back, but it’s been shaken. There’s no question about it. It should be shaken. We’ve lost, in my mind, two games — Wisconsin, hands down we should have won. This one, they probably outplayed us more, but we still had that lead and a chance. The crowd was so good. ... We’re hopefully going to do a better job for them on game day."

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

1121_baker_mayfield.jpg
USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?