MSU still upbeat with looming gauntlet of Penn State, Ohio State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said it as simply as he could after practice Tuesday — the Spartans are in no position to start feeling sorry for themselves.

“We work on what’s next right away,” Bachie said. “No time to hang our head about last week. We’ve got a great opponent coming in and it’s Spartan Stadium, so we have to come out and be ready to go.”

Of course, the opponent at noon Saturday is defending Big Ten champion Penn State, coming off a heart-breaking loss last week at Ohio State but still No. 7 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night. The following week the Spartans visit the Buckeyes.

In other words, strap up the helmets if you’re Michigan State and put the triple-overtime loss to Northwestern in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah, it kind of shifts your focus to a very good team like Penn State,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “It makes us erase last week as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

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It’s not the spot many expected Michigan State to be in at this point in the season. But with four games left, the Spartans (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) are tied for second in the East Division with the Nittany Lions behind Ohio State and checked in at No. 24 in the playoff rankings.

Coach Mark Dantonio has been hammering home one consistent message the last couple of days — the loss to Northwestern hardly ended things for Michigan State.

“We’re eight games into this, four games left, one month,” Dantonio said. “Opportunities are still in front of us. As I’ve said, I think that’s exciting for our entire football program, for the Spartan fan base. We’ve got the right kind of mindset as we head into this game.”

Under Dantonio’s tenure, the Spartans have been especially resilient. In the past four seasons, Michigan State has been in the thick of the division race three times and has proven it often takes more than one loss to derail any momentum.

In 2013, Michigan State lost in Week 4 at Notre Dame before winning the final eight in the regular season, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and knocking off Stanford in the Rose Bowl. A season later, the Spartans bounced back from a November loss to Ohio State by winning the final three games and beating Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. The loss to Nebraska in early November 2015 was followed by three wins, including the win on the final play at Ohio State. That season ended with another Big Ten title and a trip to the College Football Playoffs.

While a playoff spot might be out of reach this time, the goal of a division title and a shot at the conference championship are not. No, the Spartans won’t be the favorite to pull it off, but the first step has been putting the loss last week in the past.

For a young team, that can be difficult, and that’s where players such as senior linebacker Chris Frey come in.

“Just staying positive and keeping a positive outlook and knowing we’re in the driver’s seat still,” Frey said of his message to his younger teammates. “If we want to go the places we know we can go we have to step up and play like we should. We have to go into the next four games, and especially this week, with the mindset that we know we can win this game if we play our best ball.”

Dantonio does his best to stay on top of his players and making sure there is drop in preparation for focus from week to week.

“I worry about it because, you know, how many times can you get up every single game,” Dantonio said. “You have to get up. We only have 12 of them guaranteed, so you have to. But I worry about it. I think we’re young enough where every game’s a new experience for a lot of our guys. I think that’s a positive. I think our guys enjoy playing, which I think that’s a big thing as well. You got to enjoy going out and competing and playing.”

There could be some question as to whether Penn State (7-1, 4-1) will be flat after last week’s loss, but still in the top 10 of the playoff rankings, that’s not likely.

“We’re not panicking right here,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.

And Michigan State isn’t throwing the towel in, either.

“Keep pushing,” freshman receiver Cody White said. “Just know that we’re still in good position to do what we set and we’re in a good spot right now.”