Michigan State warms up to Holiday Bowl trip

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Getting passed over by Michigan for a spot in the Outback Bowl didn’t sit well with Michigan State’s players.

It didn’t take long, however, for the Spartans to warm up to the idea of playing another ranked team in the Holiday Bowl. Add in the fact they’ll get to do so in San Diego, and life is pretty good for Michigan State, which ended the regular season ranked No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

“Both are good games to go to it was just a matter of fact the other team had gotten in over us,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said Friday, referring to Michigan. “It was disappointing but I’m excited to be on the West Coast and go back to San Diego. I’ve been there plenty of times and it’s a fun place.

“The day after (the selections) it was like we’ve still got a really good game we get to play and we get to play a really good team. It’s two ranked teams playing so it will be fun.”

Michigan State (9-3) will take on No. 18 Washington State at 9 p.m. on Dec. 28 at SDCCU Stadium. Many expected the Spartans to land in a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida against an SEC team, but the Citrus Bowl couldn’t take a Big Ten team and the Outback went with Michigan.

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That put the Spartans in the Holiday Bowl, something they’re all looking forward to, even if they didn’t expect to be headed West.

“It was a little different but I was excited,” junior safety Khari Willis said after the team’s first practice since the end of the regular season. “I feel like wherever we were picked to go you can’t really beat it. Our options were Florida or California with an SEC team or a Pac-12 team, so you can’t beat that. I’m glad to be going to the Holiday Bowl. I’m happy to be going to San Diego and have heard a lot of great things about the area. I’m looking forward to it.”

It’s not surprising the Spartans are putting any sort of slight in the rearview mirror. After all, they weren’t in this position a year ago after finishing off a 3-9 season and missing a bowl game for the first time under coach Mark Dantonio.

For senior linebacker Chris Frey, it’s especially gratifying. He’s been part of the College Football Playoffs, so transitioning back to bowl preparation and playing for the chance to win 10 games is exactly how he wants to end his career.

“It’s hard to put in words what that means for this team, especially for me,” Frey said. “I’m just excited to be able to play in this game. Last year at this time we were sitting at home. For us to be able to have more practices under our belt, for me to be able to spend time with some of my best friends that I wouldn’t have gotten to if we were not in a bowl game. So, just to play in one more game is a blessing.”

Getting a 10th win is important, but the Spartans are also focused on building momentum heading into 2018.

With such a young team — roughly half the roster will be taking part in their first bowl game — the extra practice and experience of taking on a ranked team like Washington State will be crucial heading into next season when the Spartans expect to once again push for the Big Ten East title.

“It’s exciting and we’re asking the older guys who have been in this situation, what’s it like to go through this whole month without playing a football game,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Having two weeks off was weird. This was our first day in pads since the Rutgers game, but we came out today with great energy. I was worried about where we would be at mentally, but I thought we had a great day today.”

So, it’s the first bowl game for many of the players and the last for a handful. Whether or not it’s the last for junior running back LJ Scott remains to be seen.

He could leave early for the NFL draft, but he’s not worrying about that right now.

“Right now, I’m just focusing on the bowl game and when that time comes, I’m sure everybody will hear my decision but I’m just focused on the moment right now,” Scott said. “(The focus) is to definitely set the tone for 2018.

“(Winning 10 games) would mean a lot and let everyone know we’re back.”