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Spartans turn focus to rivalry week

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As the rankings worsen and the angst surrounding Michigan State’s performance over the last few weeks grows, there is a certain amount of concern existing around the Spartans’ program.

Just don’t try and convince anyone of that inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.

“No, we’re not panicking,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’re gonna keep coaching the next play, keep coaching and keep playing for the next play.”

The No. 7-ranked Spartans would be more apt to point toward the fact they have won 32 of their last 35 games and have 11 straight victories in Big Ten road games, compiling an 18-3 mark away from home in the conference since 2010.

They’d also remind you they have yet to lose a game this season, standing at 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten.

“The bottom line is we’re winning,” Dantonio said. “We’re a 6-0 football team and I keep saying, across the country, you watch what goes on every week, there’s tough games out there and people are struggling and I do believe we’re getting everybody’s best shot. But I’m sure next week will be a great football game.”

That game next week, of course, is the matchup with No. 12 Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor. It’s a rivalry game, to be sure, and it’s one Michigan State has dominated, winning six of the last seven. But few expected before the season it would be a top-15 matchup.

But with the way Michigan (5-1, 2-0) has played – the Wolverines have pitched three straight shutouts and have the No. 1 defense in the nation – combined with Michigan State’s quickly dwindling resources and this has become one of the more hyped matchups of the season, enough so that ESPN will be back with College GameDay after airing before the Michigan State-Oregon game on Sept. 12.

And considering the history between the teams, the game will likely deliver on the intensity.

“The fact that I'm a freshman, I don't really know how things are with Michigan and Michigan State,” running back LJ Scott said. “I know it's a big rivalry, and I know there's going to be some hate out there.”

Scott is right, because there won’t be many pleasantries exchanged before this one kicks off. But Michigan State’s focus might not be as much on the hatred – perceived or real.

For the Spartans, what will be more important is trying to right the ship in several different aspects, including special teams, up front offensively and in the defensive backfield.

The kicking game has been a problem for much of the season and it was again in the win over Rutgers. Kicker Michael Geiger had a field goal blocked and is 5-for-9 on the season while punter Jake Hartbarger totaled 35 yards on two punts, one going just 11 yards after a bad snap.

Injuries have played a big role in the other issues. Michigan State got right tackle Kodi Kieler back on Saturday but he struggled with a right knee injury. Left tackle Jack Conklin sat out for a second game while center Jack Allen went down with an ankle injury. Tight end Josiah Price (ankle) also missed a second straight game and running back Madre London hurt his right leg and did not return.

Their status for the Michigan game isn’t known, but quarterback Connor Cook said he expects Conklin and Price back.

The secondary has also been an issue for most of the season, and junior Darian Hicks was lost against Rutgers after taking a shot to the head, leaving two true freshmen as the backups.

But Dantonio, again, is not making excuses.

“We’ve got to get better, there are certain things we can’t have happen,” he said. “You know, you can’t have a bad snap, can’t have a field goal blocked, can’t have a shanked punt. Can’t throw an interception on the 7-yard line going in.”

If there’s a silver lining to the injuries, it’s the experience gained by any number of backups.

“Our coaches coach those guys, our twos, to get ready to play,” Dantonio said. “There was a time when Aaron Burbridge was a two. He was ready to play and make plays when he went in there. So I wasn’t comfortable, but you just keep playing. I think what we do is worry about the things we can change. Things that we cannot change, we deal with them and move forward. That’s the best way to try and do it.”

It’s a reality that won’t go away for the Spartans. So instead of try an explain it away heading into the biggest game of the year to date, they’ll just keep plugging away.

“We know we’re in a tough situation but we don’t care, we got to keep moving,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “I think that’s our mentality. We just got to stay strong, keep our chemistry strong and it will be all right.”