EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Mark Dantonio has never been one to minimize the magnitude of certain games, and Friday night he told his Michigan State players they would face a "defining moment" the following day.
The 10th-ranked Spartans had rival Notre Dame in their house for a national showcase game in prime time. Dantonio never bought into rankings or preseason hype for his team, but he knew games like Saturday night's provide a barometer.
Michigan State got a chance to look in the mirror, and it didn't like what it saw. With a chance to measure up, as Dantonio would say, the Spartans saw their flaws exposed and failed to once seize momentum in a thorough 20-3 loss to the visiting Fighting Irish.
"No question they earned the victory," Dantonio said. "They outplayed us. They outplayed us up front. They outplayed us pretty much everywhere, I would say. Out-coached us as well."
Notre Dame snapped Michigan State's 15-game home win streak in convincing fashion, and held the Spartans out of the end zone on their home field for the first time since Sept. 14, 1991, when they opened the season with a 20-3 loss to Central Michigan.
"It's a pretty bad situation," senior linebacker Chris Norman said. "We just lost to one of our biggest rivals at our house at night time."
Added tight end Dion Sims: "It was definitely a defining moment."
Michigan State had the perfect setting, the perfect opponent and the perfect audience to validate itself on the big stage as a team to be reckoned with this season. The Big Ten had taken a beating in Week 2, but the Spartans looked like the league's beacon through the first two games. They had flaws -- a first-year starting quarterback in Andrew Maxwell, an inexperienced receiving corps -- but also the type of strengths to keep winning for a while, perhaps a long while. Maybe, just maybe, Michigan State could take the next step from good (back-to-back 11-win seasons) to great.
Instead, the Spartans took a step backward in a game that couldn't conceal their warts. The receivers dropped passes and couldn't stretch the field. An offensive line playing without two starters, including emotional leader Fou Fonoti at right tackle, couldn't protect Maxwell, who was sacked four times and was under constant duress. Maxwell didn't commit a turnover, but he still looked more like a power pitcher than a quarterback at times, firing bullets even seasoned receivers would have a tough time catching. Much like the Big Ten championship game in December, an aggressive punt block led to a critical penalty and kept a drive alive.
But every college team outside Tuscaloosa, Ala., has weak points. Every game also provides opportunities, and the Spartans literally had them slip through their fingers Saturday night.
"We never really seized momentum," Dantonio said. "We really never got that one play."
The Spartans nearly did it in the first quarter after Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead. Notre Dame lined up in man coverage and Michigan State took advantage, as Maxwell lofted the ball to the end zone, where it caromed off receiver Bennie Fowler's hands.
"I thought it was a catch when it fell into him," Maxwell said. "And when I saw it wasn't, I was obviously disappointed."
One play doesn't define a game, but Michigan State never made the play to change the tenor.
"If we catch that, maybe that changes the complexion," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "... We just didn't make plays and things didn't go right, and we didn't make them go right."
The same held true for Michigan State's heralded defense, which hadn't surrendered an offensive touchdown in its first two games, but had been challenged by coordinator Pat Narduzzi during the week to find the next gear. Despite some early miscues, the Spartans stifled Notre Dame's offense for chunks of the game. But they never generated the sudden change they needed.
"It's a missed opportunity on my part," Bullough said, "and quite frankly, it's embarrassing. Those are plays I need to make, and will make in the future."
The defense was short on highlights and couldn't pin Notre Dame near its end zone in the fourth quarter, but the unit is still strong enough to help Michigan State go a long way this fall, especially in a Big Ten that looks as weak as ever. The bigger questions rest with the offense, from Maxwell to the receivers to the short-handed line. Michigan State averaged just 3.4 yards per play, with just two stretching longer than 20 yards. The Spartans never reached the red zone.
Dantonio plans to evaluate everything in the coming days and said the staff would face "some tough decisions" about personnel.
"This might be our low in terms of production," he said.
"We're better than that," Roushar said. "We can be better than that."
The only sliver lining for the Spartans after a buzzkill of a game is that they've been here before. Last year, in fact, after getting thumped 31-13 at Notre Dame Stadium. They responded to win the inaugural Legends Division championship and came within a whisker of reaching the Rose Bowl.
This is a different team with different challenges, but the reference point is there.
"You can use an opportunity like this to really define yourself as a team, how we respond to this kind of situation," Norman said. "The same thing happened last year, but we were able to respond and we had a successful season. ... It's definitely possible. We just have to take initiative."
Short on big plays but long on accountability, Sims said he and his teammates won't soon forget Saturday's loss. It defines them now, but they don't plan to let it define them in the end.
"This game ... has a way of bringing you back down to earth," Dantonio said. "We got a taste of some humble pie, I guess. We'll handle it."