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Monday, November 05, 2007

The Curse of Spartan Bob

I was nervously watching the end of the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game on Saturday feeling like I'd been there before. Michigan scores a late touchdown on a long pass to the corner of the endzone to take a 4 point lead. Michigan State gets one last drive. They move the ball past midfield. Michigan gets a sack. Suddenly its fourth and long. Incomplete pass!

I sat there on Saturday in a crowded Washington, DC sports bar, flashing back to six years earlier when I had witnessed this same exact sequence play out in person at Spartan Stadium, only to have Michigan penalized for a personal foul face mask keeping the drive alive. Michigan State went on to move the ball down to the Michigan one yard line, spiking the football with no time (Michigan version)/one second (Michigan State version) remaining. This stopped the clock and gave Michigan State one last play in which quarterback Jeff Smoker scrambled to his right, lofted a little pass back across the field between defenders to Michigan State running back TJ Duckett for a touchdown and a 26-24 win. The game is remembered by many as the "Spartan Bob" game after the game clock operator employed by Michigan State who stopped the clock prematurely or in accordance with the rules, depending on who you talk to.

Initially I wasn't terribly outraged by the whole Spartan Bob fiasco. Don't get me wrong, I have never seen a clock stop more abruptly after the end of a play, almost as if the clock operator was anticipating Jeff Smoker spiking the football. And how the referees missed the blatant holding that occurred on the last play of the game is beyond me. Still, those things can happen when you allow a game to be decided by one play - particularly on the road against a rival. Michigan had plenty of opportunities to win that game that they didn't take advantage of. Michigan State played better football in the second half and deserved to win.

On Saturday, after Michigan State's 4th down pass fell incomplete, it took me about 10 seconds to realize that there was no penalty flag coming and that Michigan would in fact win this time. It was like one of those movies that has alternate endings, and I definitely preferred the 2007 version. But all of these similarities got me to thinking: What if Spartan Bob, by stopping the clock early, placed a curse on the Michigan State football team that continues today? Consider the evidence:

- In the six seasons prior to the Spartan Bob game, Michigan State was 2-4 against Michigan. Including the Spartan Bob game, 3-4. Michigan State is 0-6 against Michigan ever since.

- In the six and a half seasons before the Spartan Bob game, Michigan State was 27-25-1 in Big 10 play. They are 15-34 ever since, including a three game losing streak that commenced the week after the SBG.

- Between 1995 and the SBG, Michigan State's three wins were each by a field goal or less while each of Michigan's four wins came by 12 points or more. Somehow, Michigan State always seemed to find a way to win the close games. Since the SBG, four of the six Michigan vs. Michigan State games have gone right down to the wire, including two overtime games. However, since the SBG, Michigan State has been the team to collapse down the stretch in close games.

- The two post-SBG Michigan vs. Michigan State games decided by more than a touchdown came in seasons that led to the Spartans parting ways with their head coach. Strikingly, the year after the SBG, Michigan beat Michigan State 49-3, the Wolverine's largest margin of victory over the Spartans in more than 50 years. The next week, Michigan State dismissed head football coach Bobby Williams. The extent to which Michigan's 36-13 drubbing of Michigan State in 2006 contributed to John L. Smith's termination is not as clear, but I'm sure that it didn't help.

- Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe in the curse of Spartan Bob is that Saturday's game, which mirrored the SBG in so many ways, was six years to the day after that clock stopped early, giving Michigan State an opportunity to score six points. One miserable, heart wrenching loss for each misbegotten point.

Was the SBG in fact such an egregious miscarriage of justice that it spawned its own curse? Did all of those whining Michigan fans have a legitimate gripe all along? And perhaps most importantly, assuming that the Curse of Sparty Bob is real, at what point will Michigan State have paid its karmic debt to the universe and resume beating Michigan approximately once every three years?


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