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Spartans try to restore chip on their shoulder

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Riley Bullough

East Lansing — As Mark Dantonio was busy building Michigan State into a national power, it was often done with the proverbial chip on the Spartans’ shoulder.

It was a convenient tack to take considering many had trouble believing — even as it was happening — that Michigan State was a program that could be successful on a consistent basis, compete for championships and win on the big stage.

But Dantonio and Michigan State did just that, making nine consecutive bowl games, winning three Big Ten titles and reaching the College Football Playoff. It’s a run that has often left fans of rival programs wondering when Dantonio would drop the “chip on their shoulder” approach.

As tonight’s kickoff at Maryland looms and Michigan State searches for a way to end a four-game skid, going back to that tried and true mindset would probably serve the Spartans well.

“In some ways a lot of you guys, media, people around, have said we always play with a chip on our shoulder,” Dantonio said. “We need to assume that that chip is not there and put it there, I guess, if that’s the case.

“(We’ve) always sort of thought that we challenged each other, challenged ourselves individually to be our very best at game time. That needs to come out again.”

It hasn’t been there for most of this 2016 season, and especially over the last four games.

There have been plenty of obvious reasons why, most of them including poor execution by the players and some questionable game plans.

But that attitude has been missing, too. The Michigan State teams that went 7-2 since 2011 against teams ranked in the top 10 rarely entered a game without feeling it had something to prove.

It seems that has disappeared.

“Honestly, I think we got comfortable,” junior safety Montae Nicholson said. “That has to stop. As a team, as a whole, we have to remember what got us the success that we’ve had. We’ve got to get back to that and keep working.”

It begins tonight against a Maryland team that began the season with four straight wins under first-year coach D.J. Durkin, the former Michigan defensive coordinator, but has lost its last two.

“It’s pretty clear and well documented the success that they’ve had there,” Durkin said of Michigan State. “I think their coaching staff has done a tremendous job. They’re a well-coached team, a well-coached program and they’ve been consistently good for a good amount of time now. They’re having struggles right now with certain things, and so are we.”

Michigan State vs. Maryland preview: Halt the skid

Both teams find themselves in the position of needing every victory they can get to try and reach a bowl game. It would be quite a turnaround for the Terrapins (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) after going 3-9 last season while it would be devastating for the Spartans, who were ranked in the top 10 after two games this season and had designs on another Big Ten championship.

But the Spartans (2-4, 0-3) have little margin for error in order to get to six victories, especially considering they still have games against Michigan and Ohio State, which are both unbeaten and ranked Nos. 2 and 3 in the country.

If they fail to do so it would be the first time in Dantonio’s 10 years at Michigan State the Spartans haven’t reached a bowl game.

“It’s something we’ve done every year,” Dantonio said. “We’ve sort of taken it for granted. I don’t think you can obviously take things for granted right now. We’re a 2-4 football team. Again, we got to find the inches. We’ve been able to do that.”

Just getting to that six-win plateau, however, is hardly something Michigan State figured it would be worried about. It was in the same position in 2012, needing to win the regular-season finale at Minnesota.

They did so that day, but these Spartans are only at the halfway point of the season, and despite what the numbers have shown, they believe in bigger things.

“Everyone believes we have to go 6-0. Everyone in this building, in this bubble, knows that we can do that,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “When the team is winning, you’re winning. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it’s gonna be. … At the end of the day it’s all for Michigan State, all for Spartan Nation, all for people that care about this program.

“We want this program to be in a good position, so it’s about obviously wining and making sure this place stays where it supposed to stay and that at the top.”

To get back to that point, the Spartans will likely take the field tonight with a familiar attitude.

“We’ve talked about that, actually getting that chip on our shoulders back,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We’ve always been a team that prides ourselves on being hard-nosed, blue-collar players and we’ve gotten away from that. We’ve got to get back to that.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @mattcharboneau