EAST LANSING - Last season was one of missed opportunities for Michigan State's football team.
And no loss among the five that totaled 13 points may have been more indicative of that than the Spartan's 28-24 loss in 2012 to Nebraska at Spartan Stadium.
Despite 188 yards rushing and two touchdowns from Le'Veon Bell and a 24-14 lead with less than eight minutes left in the game, a series of unfortunate events allowed the Cornhuskers to score two touchdowns in the final 7:20 to win the game.
While many refer to the disputed penalty call that brought back Darqueze Dennard's 98-yard interception return for a touchdown as the reason behind the Spartans' loss - one that left the program 0-7 all-time against Nebraska - there were many other factors in that game before and after that controversial call that led to the Spartans' demise.
"The moment was kind of heartbreaking because not only - the touchdown thing, I can get over that because we were still in the game, and just coming down to the last drive and just knowing we had an opportunity to win the game after that and just getting the call that was called, it was hard. I think it was tough for the whole team.'' said Dennard, who admitted that he has been asked about the disputed play well over a 100 times since it happened. "But just knowing that we've been through that earlier this season, we got into it with the refs already, we know how to change our game up now and just play our type of game. Trae (Waynes) and I both, we've been playing well, playing tremendously, actually. We haven't got many pass interference calls after the Notre Dame game and I think (we've) changed our game well with the refs.''
The other problem in last season's loss was that MSU could never find a way to contain then-junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who finished the game with All-American numbers after rushing for 205 yards and two scores, while passing for another 160 yards and two more TDs, despite tossing three interceptions and being sacked twice in the ballgame.
Martinez scored on lengthy TD runs of 71 and 35 yards in a game where MSU couldn't get a stop on 4th-and-10 that would have sealed the win.
Instead, the Spartans gave up a 38-yard pass play to keep a late Husker drive alive.
And by the time Dennard was called for pass interference in the end zone with less that 30 seconds to play, as Nebraska eventually converted the game-winning score on a five-yard pass from Martinez to Jamal Turner with six seconds left, MSU's collapse and loss to Nebraska came to epitomize the misfortunes and missed opportunities of a season that had long since gone wrong.
"I think the biggest thing is that what we took from that game is that we didn't execute the way we wanted to. We didn't play Spartan football like we usually do. It was a lot of errors, and it kind of hurt us. We had an opportunity that we could have beat the team, but we didn't play to our full potential,'' said sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun. "So coming into this game, it kind of motivates us and pushes us to keep looking forward. They're just another team that we have to beat, another great team that's going to be in the way, and we've got to take the proper steps to win in that game.''
With all that happened last season in that game against Nebraska, it almost seems fitting that the No. 14 Spartans, who sit atop of the Legends Division at 5-0, have a chance to not only potentially clinch a share of the Legends Division title but also avenge last season's loss to a Husker team that earned last season's Legends crown, in part because their win at MSU.
The 3:30 p.m. rematch, which will come off without Martinez, who is not expected to play because of a lingering foot injury, will be MSU's chance to exorcise some demons and keep pace with their goal of reaching the Rose Bowl.
"I would say we looked at last year and we understood that we had great opportunities, and we didn't take hold of them. This year the biggest focus is on don't let that opportunity slip by you,'' Calhoun said. "This is an opportunity now and this is such a big game, we don't want to let any game go to waste. These opportunities don't come all the time. You have to definitely try and take hold of it and grasp it now and don't wait for someone else to do it.''
But in order to do it, they will need some help from two teammates who didn't play in last season's game.
Starting sophomore quarterback Connor Cook watched on the sidelines of last season's painful loss as a backup to Andrew Maxwell, while starting 5th-year senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti had been lost for the season last year with a foot injury.
While both have tried to avoid talk of revenge and everything else that comes into play when a team has a chance to put a stranglehold on a division title against a program it has never beaten, emotions and staying in the moment will require a delicate balance from a team that is so close to one of its major goals for the 2013 season.
""Coach D always talks about (and) he made a great point. He said we shouldn't worry about we need this team to beat that team, or this team to beat that team,'' Fonoti said. "It's for us to take care of our own work, and I definitely feel that the truth is in that''
With that being said, maybe the best approach to Saturday's game comes from the guy who didn't even play in last season's debacle but will get a chance to help MSU wrong the rights of last year's four-point loss. Connor Cook.
"There's always extra motivation if you've never beaten a school and stuff that happened last year. I know we had extra motivation playing against Michigan for what happened last year at their place. But we're coming in with the mindset like any other Big 10 game that we've had. It's a big game, we all know that, everyone knows that, but I think we're going to come in focused, we're going to trust ourselves and we're going to believe in ourselves,'' Cook said. "Obviously a win here is a big-time win, never beating Nebraska obviously, and then clinching a share for the Big 10 championship game. But I think as long as we win I'm not really trying to focus on if we win here, what if we win two games out of the remaining three or if we lose to Nebraska we have to win the next two. I think we just (need to) focus on the task at hand, focus on the game at hand, focus on going 1-0 and everything will take care of itself.''
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