December 18, 1997 in Sports

Spartans, Huskies Following Similar Paths Preseason Expectations Had Teams In Rose Bowl

Bob Condotta Tacoma News Tribune

Sedrick Irvin is talking, and if you didn’t know it, you’d think he’s talking about the Washington Huskies.

The team Irvin is telling you about thought it was headed to the Rose Bowl this season. Thought it had the kind of schedule that might even generate a run at one of the highest rankings in school history. Thought that after a fast start to the season, most of its goals would come true.

Then came an injury or two, a surprise loss followed by a beating at the hands of one of the conference’s traditional powerhouses, and suddenly the team was fighting for its postseason life.

Sounds an awful lot like Washington, which once was 7-1 and thinking Roses and ended up 7-4 and needing divine intervention to end up in Hawaii instead of dreaded El Paso, Texas.

Irvin, though, is talking about the Michigan State Spartans, for whom he is the leading rusher and who in many ways mirror the Washington Huskies - the Spartans’ opponent in the Aloha Bowl on Christmas Day.

“This is almost like the preseason Rose Bowl,” Irvin said. “We both thought we’d be playing in the Rose Bowl when the season began.”

Instead, they are both hoping to salvage their seasons in a bowl game that neither ever envisioned in August, but that ended up being better than most of the alternatives once the losing started.

With 17 starters returning this season, Michigan State was a chic pick as a dark-horse candidate for the Rose Bowl with the potential to maybe even make a national-title run with home games against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

When MSU won its first five, including a dominating win at Notre Dame, the Spartans were ranked No. 11 and feeling good.

Then came a two-point loss to Northwestern the week before the game against Michigan, a classic case of looking ahead that turned into disaster when the Spartans missed a late field goal that could have provided an escape. That was followed by a loss to the Wolverines, then a huge loss at home to Ohio State and another blown game at Purdue when the Spartans saw a late field-goal attempt returned for a touchdown.

“The way we played against two of our top opponents, Ohio State and Michigan, we basically just stunk,” senior linebacker Ike Reese said. “We were embarrassed.”

Sounds like what Washington’s players are saying about losses to Nebraska, UCLA and Washington State.

And just like Washington, Michigan State brings into the Aloha Bowl a streak of three straight losses in bowl games, including a 38-0 drubbing in the Sun Bowl last year against Stanford - Washington was hammered in El Paso, 38-18, by Iowa the year before.

“If we don’t take it seriously and come prepared to play the game, we will be embarrassed the way we were the last two years,” Reese said, referring also to a 45-26 loss to LSU in the 1995 Independence Bowl. Both years, Reese said, the team had too many players who were simply happy to be in a bowl but didn’t care about winning it.

Where the similarities between the Huskies and Spartans stop, though, is in how the two teams finished their regular seasons.

Michigan State beat Penn State, 49-14, in its season finale Nov. 29, a win that got them into the Aloha Bowl when it was likely that a loss would have left them home for the holidays. In fact, Michigan State was 5-4 after the game against Purdue, then beat Illinois and Penn State by a combined 76-31 to gain new life.

Washington, meanwhile, was still the leader in the Rose Bowl race with two weeks left before losing to UCLA and Washington State.

“Hawaii is a step up for us,” Reese said. “It’s a great bowl for any 7-4 team, especially for any team that loses four straight games in the middle of the season. We went from playing on Jan. 1 to playing in a bowl game that nobody had ever heard of (a reference to an invite to the Motor City Bowl that the Spartans turned down) to playing in Hawaii.”

The Aloha Bowl will complete the third season in the reign of coach Nick Saban, who had gone 12-11-1 in his first two seasons and thought this would be his breakthrough year in East Lansing.

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