Michigan State knows finishing strong is ‘very important’

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

New Brunswick, N.J. – Take care of the football, as they say. Make some blocks to spring LJ Scott. Catch quality passes Brian Lewerke is mandated to throw. Stop any game-changing big plays that might offer a whopping underdog a chance at an upset, which is what Rutgers nearly pulled off against Michigan State two seasons ago on the Scarlet Knights’ home field.

There rests the basic recipe for a Spartans clean-up of their regular-season itinerary and a 9-3 record that might well put them into a New Year’s Day bowl game and sanction one of the best one-year turnarounds in MSU football annals.

The Spartans are invited by coach Mark Dantonio to complete all of the above at 4 p.m. today when their Restore Respect mission continues at High Points Solutions Stadium, in Piscataway.

Manage some basics and the Spartans will look all the more like the 16-point favorites those in charge of Vegas’ betting salons have determined MSU to be.

More: Michigan State vs. Rutgers: View from other side

Mess up, and it’s an 8-4 finish, still amazingly good given expectations in East Lansing for 2017. But an upset loss Saturday would be a miserably bad note, calling into question a team’s overall luster just as it would consign the Spartans to a lesser bowl game.

The Spartans plan on taking care of business. Too much has been gained during this autumn of surprises and relative splendor, they say, to mar it with bad acts today.

“Keep the shine on this football season,” Dantonio said this week, all but tasting an autumn finale that would mean as much to a head coach as it would be prized by his players, and MSU’s rooters. “We’ll continue to try and do that.”

It means MSU must trust its obvious edge in personnel and overall talent and not allow any self-sabotage. Rutgers, as sage observer Lou Holtz might remind, offers scholarships, too, and has at times played like a team with a record brighter than 4-7, and 3-5 in Big Ten games.

The Scarlet Knights have beaten Purdue, Maryland and Illinois, which isn’t going to impress many outside of Rutgers’ immediate world. They are last in Big Ten scoring (19 points per game) and 11th in overall defense. They’re fifth in rushing, which is offset by their No. 1 niche in sacks allowed, which is something the Spartans’ defensive front understands.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Rutgers

Chris Ash is two years into a rough role as Rutgers head coach and has as his offensive coordinator an old Big Ten celebrity, Jerry Kill, who formerly was head coach at Minnesota.

They use a variety of quarterbacks now headed by Giovanni Rescigno (Warren De La Salle), a redshirt junior who has thus far survived opponents’ sack attacks and ranks ahead of Kyle Bolin and freshman Johnathan Lewis.

Dantonio knows tough jobs and understands where Rutgers rests on the spectrum. He was careful and polite this week in sizing up the Scarlet Knights.

“Got a lot of respect for Chris Ash, what he’s accomplished,” Dantonio said. “He’s in his second year, working the culture, everything that you have to do to change the program as he moves forward.

“Very competitive football team in every football game,” Dantonio added, ignoring some final scores and losses (41-0, Indiana; 56-0, Ohio State; 35-6, Penn State). “Even watching the Ohio State game, early in the football game they’re hanging. Whether you’re watching, Michigan, Penn State, regardless, they come to play and compete on both sides of the ball.”

Dantonio can offer his team as one example of what happens when you plan on slipping into Piscataway and mauling an on-the-mat team.

Two seasons ago, before the Spartans slipped into the national championship semifinals, they made an obligatory visit to Rutgers and were blessed to leave town with a 31-24 victory. The Scarlet Knights that season won only a single Big Ten game that season, at Indiana, but nearly made the Spartans victim No. 2.

Still, Dantonio, at least privately, understands what can and should happen today if his team keeps its helmets screwed on and plays MSU-brand football.

Michigan State will have wrapped and ribboned for bowl committees a magical turnaround team that could be headed for a Jan. 1 bowl and perhaps a Southeastern Conference enemy. That team, no matter from what conference it hails, will be eminently more talented than the team MSU today plays.

It makes MSU’s assignment more of a mandate for a team that, as Dantonio noted last week, had an early bye date and is staring at a 10th consecutive week of Saturday football.

“Sort of grinding,” Dantonio said. “I think one of the main things we keep talking about is momentum, keeping momentum as we go into the bowl game.

“To finish this is very, very important.”

Michigan State at Rutgers

Kickoff: 4 Saturday, High Points Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Michigan State 8-3, 6-2 Big Ten; Rutgers 4-7, 3-5

Line: Michigan State by 16