Brian Allen, Gerald Holmes, Chris Frey and Khari Willis talk about season and Washington State, the Spartans' opponent in the Holiday Bowl. Matt Charboneau
East Lansing — There were plenty of smiles around the Kellogg Center on the campus of Michigan State on Sunday as the football team held its annual banquet.
Players dressed in suits and ties surrounded by their families, and of course, the Spartans coaches celebrated a season that few will forget. It wasn’t like 2015 when a playoff game was on the horizon or 2013 when a trip to the Rose Bowl awaited.
But it was just as important. Important because this was the year — this was the team — that reminded everyone that the misery of 2016 was a distant memory. The record had been flipped from 3-9 to 9-3 and a trip to the Holiday Bowl is next.
Needless to say, the contrast in atmosphere from a year ago was stark.
“You come to last year’s banquet, we didn’t get food like this,” said sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie, who was named the team MVP. “I think it was walk up, go get your own, a couple pieces of mac and cheese or whatever. But this was special. My family came out and you got to see the people there that you truly care about — your teammates, their families, all the coaches. It was a great way to put it on. It feels a lot better being 9-3 than 3-9.”
That, of course, was the prevailing feeling of the afternoon.
There were plenty of awards to hand out, but the fact the program could feel good about itself again permeated the room. The on-field difficulties of last season appear to have been dispatched sooner than anyone would have guessed and Michigan State believes itself to once again be a championship-contending team in the Big Ten.
“I think last year it was a disappointing year,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “A lot of things go into making that .... I really respect the job, the grind and the grit that our football team showed really from day one, not just in the games, but really coming back and starting the process over and doing it the hard way.
“That's what we've done, and I'm very, very appreciative of all of their hard work. It's not a very big senior class, but the seniors who were there led, and then we've got an infusion of young players into this program, which I think sort of gave us a new life, and then our junior class if very solid.”
The senior class was in as good a position as any to oversee the Spartans’ turnaround. All of the fifth-year seniors were around for that trip to the Rose Bowl in 2013 and all had a part in the Cotton Bowl of 2014 and the playoff berth the next season against Alabama.
Of course, they felt the sting of last season, as well. It all made Sunday’s banquet that much better.
“It definitely feels a lot better,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “It’s bittersweet. It’s something that has been a part of my life for four years, something I have taken pride in is coming to an end.
Spartans coach reflects on team's 9-3 season at football awards banquet.
“As a senior leader on this team it was an awesome experience to know that when this team was handed over to you to be a leader we were in a low spot. To be able to say where we are now on this day and to know the leaders on this team have taken this team and put it back where it’s supposed to be is an unbelievable accomplishment and it means the world to us.”
Added fifth-year senior running back Gerald Holmes, “I think we’re known as the comeback team, the bounce-back team, the team that turned everything around and got the program back on track.”
It’s back on track enough that the Spartans (9-3) are back in the national rankings and back in a bowl game after missing out last season. Michigan State finished the regular season ranked No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings and will take on No. 18 Washington State (9-3) in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 at 9 p.m. in SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.
And that perceived slight from the Outback Bowl, which picked Michigan over Michigan State?
“If you told us that after going 3-9 we’d be going to Cali or Florida, I’d have taken either,” junior safety Khari Willis said. “I’m very excited for the bowl game.”
That game will not only be the culmination of Michigan State’s season, it will be the chance to win 10 games for the fourth time in the last five seasons and would give Dantonio his 100th victory as the Spartans’ coach.
“When you win nine football games and are going to a great bowl game against a great opponent, with the opportunity to win 10 games, that doesn't happen often,” Dantonio said. “Plus, we have the chance to send our players out right. Now we need to get job No. 10 done, but I think it was a great moment for us.”
MSU AWARD WINNERS
Governor's Award (most valuable player): Joe Bachie
President's Award (senior back/lineman for perseverance): Gerald Holmes (offense), Demetrius Cooper (defense)
Jim Adams Award (unsung hero): Darrell Stewart Jr. (offense), Khari Willis (defense)
Iron Man Award (strength and conditioning): Raequan Williams
Potsy Ross Award (scholar-athlete): Chase Gianacakos
Tommy Love Award (most improved): Felton Davis III (offense), David Dowell (defense)
Clarence Underwood Sportsmanship Award: Matt Sokol
MSU Football Players Association Community Service Award: Gerald Holmes
Outstanding Underclass Lineman Award: Luke Campbell (offense), Kenny Willekes (defense)
Outstanding Underclass Back Award: Brian Lewerke (offense), Josiah Scott (defense)
Up Front Award (outstanding lineman): Brian Allen (offense), Joe Bachie (defense)
Downtown Coaches Club: Brian Allen (offense), Chris Frey (defense), Jake Hartbarger (special teams)
Danziger Award (outstanding Detroit-area player): David Beedle
Doug Weaver Oil Can Award (team humorist): Darrell Stewart Jr.
Biggie Munn Award (most inspirational): Brian Allen (offense), Joe Bachie (defense)
Captains Award: Brian Allen, Chris Frey