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Michigan State players talk about Thursday's 42-17 win over Washington State and what it means for the program moving forward. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News

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San Diego — When Mark Dantonio first took over at Michigan State back in 2007, the Spartans suffered a bitter defeat to their rival, Michigan.

Michigan State gave up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter that early November day in Spartan Stadium and a day later, a frustrated Dantonio said the rivalry was only beginning to heat up.

“It’s not over,” he said. “It’s just starting.”

He was talking, on that day, specifically about the rivalry. But fast forward to the end of his 11th season and the feeling is permeating the program. Fresh of a 42-17 victory over Washington State on Thursday night in the Holiday Bowl, the return of Michigan State football seemed complete.

“We’re back to where we’ve been and I think we reaffirmed our stature in college football,” said Dantonio, whose team finished 10-3 and potentially with a top-15 ranking. “This has been a good football team and it should continue to be a good football team. We’ve got good players and we’re young and we’ve had great leadership from our seniors.”

The misery of 2016 was a distant memory — in reality, it had been for months for those within the program — and after a dominating performance that ended the biggest turnaround in program history, the thoughts were quickly turning to next season.

Fifteen seniors

Only 15 seniors were on Michigan State’s roster and just three started in the Holiday Bowl – center Brian Allen, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Chris Frey. Running back Gerald Holmes and linebacker Shane Jones were the only other seniors that played significant roles, meaning the core of the Spartans will be back.

Needless to say, confidence is high.

“We’re back. That’s it,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We’re gonna take this into next year and we’re gonna grow."

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They have plenty of key pieces to believe that growth will continue. Bachie is at the center of it, the leading tackler on the defense and an emerging star. He’ll be surrounded by proven talent on defense next season with only linebacker Andrew Dowell and safety Khari Willis among starters entering their senior seasons.

On offense, it’s a similar picture. Quarterback Brian Lewerke, who capped of the second-best season in Michigan State history in terms of total offense, will be a junior and have all of his weapons back. The offensive line loses just Allen and gained valuable experience all season.

Scott coming back

But the most important return only became clear late Thursday night when running back LJ Scott confirmed he’ll be back for his senior season, reminding Dantonio of 2015 when quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun came back for their senior seasons and helped lead the Spartans to the College Football Playoffs.

“I think he could be a tremendous tailback, a guy that we can hand the ball to 250 times and do great things, much like when Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook made the decision to come back,” Dantonio said.

“They followed with a ring, a Big Ten championship ring and I think those things become possible. We have an established tailback coming back and he’s a special player.”

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Scott said he’d known for weeks, and his coach and some teammates confirmed that.

Why put the NFL off? It was simple for Scott.

“We’ve got a bright future and a huge chance to do good things,” Scott said. “With the hard work we put in, the blood sweat and tears with this team, I can’t leave them early.”

Confidence is high

For those seniors not coming back, the confidence is just as high.

Led by Allen and linebacker Chris Frey, the senior class got Michigan State back to what it hand known — winning bowl games and competing for championships.

They believe the Spartans are back on track.

“The future is bright for this team,” Frey said.

“I’m excited to continue watching this team grow because we have so many young guys that have the ability to be great and with the work ethic I know they have that they showed in the off-season. The sky is the limit for everybody on this team.”

And Allen reminded them, as fulfilling as 2017 was, it’s not the ultimate goal at Michigan State.

“I thanked everybody for what they’ve done and just let them know that the Holiday Bowl is not the goal,” Allen said. “As awesome as it is to be out here, the expectations for next year are going to be even higher. That’s what is most special about this.

“I’m excited where the program is at.”

There are no guarantees. Last season proved that.

But there’s no doubt Michigan State will enter 2018 with lofty expectations. However, nothing will be taken for granted with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan still ready to battle in the Big Ten East.

“We take ours one at a time,” junior receiver Felton Davis said about the team’s goals. “So, first one is winning the East and then the Big Ten championship and then put ourselves into a position to win the national championship.”

That’s a long way off, but until then, Michigan State feels confident in the fact it is back where it belongs. The 10 victories this season made up the fourth double-digit win season in the last five and the sixth under Dantonio.

And as much as he and the Spartans reveled in that Thursday, the realized winter conditioning is coming quickly.

“I would like to say we’re back, but 2018 is around the corner,” Dantonio said.

“So, you can’t say that because you’ve got to start proving yourself all over again.

“But this was as great of a football season that I have had as a coach because of where we came from and what we were able to accomplish.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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