MSU in full stride as regular-season finale nears
East Lansing — Two weeks ago, in the wake of Michigan State's toughest loss in the last two seasons, coach Mark Dantonio talked about the need for his team to "play through the pain."
The Spartans had just lost to Ohio State, getting knocked out of the Big Ten East race and the College Football Playoff picture in one fell swoop. A defense that had become used to being dominant was less than ordinary and an opportunistic offense suddenly missed in its chances to build a lead.
But there were three games left in the regular season and a shot at a top-tier bowl game was still a possibility, not to mention the overall momentum another double-digit win season could give Michigan State.
Two weeks later, following a gritty win at Maryland that included one of those once-familiar dominating defensive performances and a home blowout of Rutgers on Senior Day, the Spartans have done just what their coach wanted following the Ohio State loss.
They have bounced back.
"I think they have done an outstanding job," Dantonio said Sunday in his weekly teleconference. "I've always said that we have got great senior leadership here and great chemistry. And that's what chemistry shows you, your ability to handle the down times with the good. And we have always talked about it and worked on little things."
A drop-off might not have been that big a surprise considering Michigan State had focused everything on winning the Big Ten and getting a shot at the playoffs. But when that disappears so dramatically, it can be difficult to bounce back.
The victory over Maryland wasn't always pretty but it was effective. The offense struggled but the defense was outstanding, allowing only 6 rushing yards.
"We went into a tough environment at Maryland," Dantonio said, "with probably what many would consider a trap game. If things don't go so well, you might get a little bit down and not play your best. I thought that we played well, especially as the game continued on. Especially in the fourth quarter.
"So that was very indicative (of the leadership). And then the way we came out in this last football game."
The last one was the 45-3 win over Rutgers. It was never really close as Michigan State scored touchdowns on five straight possessions and turned Spartan Stadium into a private party for 18 outgoing seniors.
"It was Senior Day, it was an emotional day," Dantonio said. "(There was) bad weather that sort of limited some of the fans. And our guys played right through it all. They came out fresh, and I think that's very indicative of our teams we have had here because of the senior leadership and the chemistry."
That leaves one final step for No. 10 Michigan State next week as it goes for its 10th victory at Penn State. It would likely lead to a spot in one of the College Football Playoff bowls not being used in the semifinals.
The Spartans will likely continue to use wide receiver Tony Lippett on defense. He started at cornerback Saturday, the first time he did that since his redshirt freshman season of 2011. He didn't know about the plan until early last week, but Dantonio was impressed with how the fifth-year senior hardly missed a beat.
"He remained very, very fresh," Dantonio said. "On Tuesday when we did it, that's what we wanted to see, how fresh he was and what did he, had he retained.
"He knew our coverages, he knew press technique. But we felt like he could cover and felt like he had great ball skills, and he could run, and he could play the ball on the deep part of the field, certainly, and change direction and run a route up and down the field. He could run the route and play the double patterns and different things. And he's so long. He's 6-foot-3 and has long arms and it's tough to separate from a guy like that."
The Spartans might not have fifth-year senior guard Travis Jackson at Penn State.
Jackson injured his left leg on the first series against Rutgers and didn't return. Dantonio said he would play again, but was unsure about this week. That means a likely return for a bowl game.
"It was frustrating that he went down on the third play, because it was Senior Day and a special day, a special moment for him," Dantonio said. "But I think he did a great job of getting back out there and handling adversity and just rubbing off on other people that, 'Hey, he's OK.' Disappointed, but he's OK."
Dantonio also said Sunday night that Lippett will join running back Jeremy Langford and safety Kurtis Drummond at the Senior Bowl.
Michigan State at Penn State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
TV/radio: ABC/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 9-2, 6-1 Big Ten; Penn State 6-5, 2-5
Line: Michigan State by 13
Outlook: Michigan State is likely to land a spot in one of the six major bowls with a victory. ... Penn State is already bowl-eligible despite its loss to Illinois on Saturday.