EAST LANSING, Mich. – It was just the seventh time in seven seasons that Chris Petersen walked off a football field in defeat. This is the coach who almost never losses, never falls. Not Friday though, not here inside a rollicking Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State coaches, players and fans were reveling in a fourth-quarter comeback that delivered a 17-13 victory against Boise State.
Petersen walked swiftly toward the tunnel, his face nearly blank. He's now 73-7 in his career and if he had a clutch field-goal kicker, he might have shown up riding a 40-game win streak. It didn't matter. Boise is 0-1 on the season.
As he walked he made sure to turn and acknowledge two sections of orange-clad Bronco fans in one corner of the place. They'd made the pilgrimage from Idaho and despite the scoreboard they were standing and cheering their coach, applauding Petersen's work.
When you return just five starters yet walk into "Beast Lansing" and go toe-to-toe with a team the caliber of the 13th-ranked Spartans, when you lead with eight and change remaining, an upset there for the taking, well, even the most win-spoiled fan base in the country knows it's something to celebrate.
Petersen heard the claps and shouts. So he raised a hand and threw them a thumbs-up. He was faking it though. There was no joy. There was no sense of accomplishment. He just kept moving.
Inside, the mistakes, the missed chances, the mental errors were grinding him.
Let Boise State's faithful find satisfaction in the effort. Its coach would have none of it.
"Zero," he said later. "Zero satisfaction. We had chances. There are no moral victories in any of this stuff."
This is how you take a school like Boise State, with its small stadium and once small conference and its remote location and turn it into a nationally prominent program that inspires top 15, Big Ten teams to roar in victory.
"They're 70-something and six," State coach Mark Dantonio said. "To get a win [against them], period, is impressive."
Petersen is about the relentless pursuit of perfection. Many of those victories were racked up against inferior opponents, but Boise has proven itself against the nation's elite through the years. This was his latest chance.
Even in defeat it points to the program that's been built, one that's capable of losing so much experience, leadership and talent (six NFL draft picks, including two first-rounders) and still going strong. An entirely new front seven on defense gave Michigan State's mammoth line everything it could handle.
The Spartans have won 15 consecutive up here. They've won 11 games each of the last two seasons. They are eyeing a Big Ten championship. This is a big-time operation.
In the end State had too much for the new Boise. Too much Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 210 yard on 44 hard-charging carries. Too much Dion Sims, the 285-pound bruising tight end who caught seven passes. Too much William Gholston and friends on the defensive line, who stuffed the Broncos' run game so much that Petersen looked physically ill as he stared at the stat sheet.
"Thirty-seven yards on 24 carries ain't going to cut it," Petersen said. (The Broncos actually finished with 38 yards.)
He looked like he just wanted to get to the team plane, where he could spend the long flight back west staring at tape and figuring out what went wrong.
The Broncos couldn't salt away the game when they had that fourth-quarter lead. They couldn't extend drives to keep the Spartans' offense off the field. They couldn't help the defense, which dealt with 90 snaps and were understandably worn down in the final two drives when the game was lost.
"The thing that keeps jumping out is the running game," Petersen lamented. "We have to be better with that."
He kept staring off in frustration.
"I just know that we have some guys that can make more plays."
"We had chances. We had the matchups we wanted."
"I thought we would run the ball better."
The positives everyone else saw in the performance, Petersen couldn't recognize. Before the season he said one of his goals this year was to learn to savor the victories because the more he wins, the less he seems to enjoy them.
"That's really on my list of needs to improve," he said. "I don't appreciate it enough … I think when you win a lot, it's easy to just become immune to that and not appreciate it like you should."
Meanwhile no matter how rare the loss, it's "agony for days."
So these were the first few moments of those agonizing days; you could see it on his face, hear it in his voice.
"I think we played a really good team," he said. "Had chances to win if we could make a few more plays. That's the name of the game. [If] we get better and grow [then] we'll make those plays and have a chance to be a good team.
"But it's going to be some tough sledding for a while."
Career loss No. 7 and he looked miserable. The agony is the agony is the agony.
"We'll [watch] the tape on the plane," Petersen promised. "We'll get it on the plane."
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