Spartans want to send a 'message' in finale

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State’s seniors played their final home game last week, now they’ll close out their Spartans careers at Penn State, hoping to play the role of spoiler and provide some momentum for those returning.

Twenty-eight seniors, many of whom have won their share of big games during their careers, will look to provide a fourth win for Michigan State against the Nittany Lions, and in the process, knock Penn State out of the running for at least a share of the East division championship and possibly a spot in the Big Ten championship game.

“To me it serves as a symbol of this season,” fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor said. “A lot of games haven’t gone our way but we’ve worked hard and we’ve been in every game and given everything we’ve had.

“We understand this game doesn’t mean we’re going to a bowl game. It really doesn’t mean much for us but to go out there with a win in Happy Valley in a big-time game and show that we never gave up, that we had heart. And it will send the young guys a message heading into the offseason as a reminder of the games we’re used to winning around here.”

It’s a bit of a reversal for Michigan State and Penn State. Last season when the Nittany Lions came to East Lansing, it was the Spartans who were locking up the division championship, and they did so in dominating fashion with a 55-16 victory

Michigan State vs. Penn State preview: Leave frowns in Happy Valley

Now it’s Penn State that hopes to close things out, convincing fashion or not. It will likely know its chances by kickoff as it needs an Ohio State win over Michigan to have a chance to reach the conference title game.

That game kicks off at noon, and the Nittany Lions were contemplating all week whether or not to pay attention to the score.

“It’s not like we just put our head in the sand and act like these things aren’t going on,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We discuss them as a program, we discuss them as a staff, with the players, let people get off their chest what they need to get off their chest, make sure we’re approaching things the right way, the way the players want to approach it as well as the coaches. Once again, we’ll get our focus back to the task at hand, which is Michigan State.”

While Michigan State (3-8, 1-7 Big Ten) closes out a disappointing season and the careers of some successful seniors, this game has a bit of extra meaning.

Six Spartans hail from the state of Pennsylvania, and for junior safety Montae Nicholson, he’ll even see his old high school coach, Terry Smith, who is now the cornerbacks coach for the Nittany Lions.

“It definitely means a lot,” said Nicholson, of Monroeville, Pennsylvania. “It’s my second time going back since I’ve been here and it is especially (meaningful) with my high school coach being the cornerbacks coach. It means a lot.

“We’ll go out and compete and try and get a ‘W.’ Things haven’t gone our way this season but we’ll just try and finish strong.”

In addition to Cox, offensive/defensive lineman Brandon Clemons, fifth-year senior safety Demetrious Cox, sophomore offensive lineman Casey Schreiner, junior quarterback Damion Terry and senior running back Delton Williams are returning home.

Cox said he’s not putting too much on the fact he’ll be heading home. Instead, he’ll be thinking of everything he’s been a part of in his five years.

“It is disappointing that we’re not going out the way we want to in a big bowl game or something like that, but I’m still thankful for all the time I had here, all the good times I did have here. I’ll try and leave on a positive note and get a win.”

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is counting on his Pennsylvania recruits to provide one final spark this season.

“This is a huge game for those guys, so they will be very, very excited to play in it,” Dantonio said. “From a program standpoint, this has been a rivalry game that has been established. Coach (George) Perles and Coach (Joe) Paterno were involved in that, so we have always gone over there and been excited to go, and they’ve come here as well. There is a challenge waiting for us over there, there is no question.”

The only difference, as O’Connor pointed out, it won’t mean much for Michigan State beyond the pride of going out with win.

And that will be enough, Dantonio believes, to get the Spartans’ best effort. @mattcharboneau