Ultimate goal still within reach for Harris, Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The season was over.

That was the feeling inside the Michigan State locker room at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., last Saturday.

Fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris talked about that feeling this week, the idea that the ultimate goal the Spartans were shooting for — a spot in the College Football Playoff — had just disappeared the same way a 12-point lead had in the final four minutes to the Cornhuskers.

"That was the vibe right after the game," Harris said. "You put so much emphasis on you can't lose to get where you want to go and that was the College Football Playoff — can't lose, can't lose, can't lose. Then it happens and all of a sudden guys think the season is ruined. That's what it feels like."

Fortunately for No. 14 Michigan State, the players in that locker room quickly came to the realization all was not lost.

"That's when you sit back," Harris said, "and Riley (Bullough) said leaving the game, 'All we need is a couple of days. Let everything settle in and realize it's not over.' We're right where we need to be."

There's no doubt Michigan State (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) would be in better position had it remained unbeaten, but given the schedule to close the season, the Spartans are still in a position to, at the very least, get to the Big Ten title game where a victory would give them a very good shot at reaching the playoffs.

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It begins today with Maryland (2-7, 0-5) coming to Spartan Stadium for a noon kickoff. It will be the last chance Michigan State gets to iron out its issues before the game of the season next week at Ohio State. If Michigan State can win that game — no simple task, to be sure — it would close the season at home against Penn State. A matchup with what will likely be an unbeaten Iowa team would follow in the conference title game.

None of that can happen, however, without taking care of business today against a struggling Maryland team. And the first order of business will be bouncing back from one of the more crushing defeats of the Mark Dantonio era.

"Call it a great loss if you want," Harris said. "It allows us to realize we can't pull things out at the end every time. We need to play extremely hard and extremely well for 60 minutes because things aren't always going to fall our way. That's how sports are; that's how football is."

Shoring up the third-down defense will be a key for the Spartans. They allowed Nebraska to convert three third downs on the fourth-quarter drive that brought the Huskers to within five points, and on the final drive, the defense got chewed up in just four plays for the winning touchdown.

Many of Michigan State's issues begin with the uncertainty in the secondary. The constant shuffle of players has made it tough on the rest of the defense.

"Having a different guy out there each series can change up things," Harris said. "How (a different player) calls things, even the sounds of his voice, it's different out there. You're not exactly sure what to expect all the time. That just takes reps, rotating guys in practice more, so when it comes to game time it's not as much of a surprise."

What hasn't been as much of a surprise is the way Harris has played. He's been one of Michigan State's most consistent performers and is second on the team with 59 tackles. Against Nebraska, he had a career-high 13 stops.

"I think Darien is having a great year, his best year," co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. "Coach Dantonio always talks about for our team to have a good year, our seniors have to have their best year and he's a senior that is having his best year. He is a leader, guys respect him on the team and I'm just really happy for him. He is doing a great job."

Harris will have plenty of motivation today. Helping his team get past the loss to Nebraska will be on thing, but the native of Silver Spring, Md., always has a little extra for this game.

He's so proud of where he's from that has the Maryland flag tattooed on his arm, something his teammates give him a hard time about.

"It's kind of weird that what's on their helmet is something I have tattooed on my body," Harris said. "But I got it before I came here and was gonna get it anyway. It has nothing to do with school. It's a hometown thing, a fun little thing."

He'll be sure to have fun with some of his friends on the Maryland team, but that will all come after the game.

Before that, it's about getting Michigan State's defense playing well and keeping the Spartans pointed in the right direction.

"We succeed as an entire defense," Harris said. "You take the good with the bad and at the end of the day you move forward.

"All of our goals are still in front of us and everybody knows that."

Maryland at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV / radio: ESPN2 / WJR 760

Line: Michigan State by 15

Records: Maryland 2-7 (0-5 Big Ten), No. 14 Michigan State 8-1 (4-1)

Series: Michigan State leads 5-1 (Last: Michigan State 37-15, Nov. 15, 2014)