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Spartans put focus squarely on Holiday Bowl

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State is slowly getting back into football mode as it prepares to take on Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 in San Diego.

The Spartans practiced a couple of times last weekend to shake off some of the rust and will get back to work this weekend once most of the players have wrapped up final exams. By the end of next week, the Spartans will be headed to the West Coast, eager to play in a bowl game after missing out last season.

Coach Mark Dantonio believes his team will be ready to go once it hits the field for the 9 p.m. kickoff at SDCCU Stadium.

“Our guys will be ready to play. I think we're focused on that,” Dantonio said Wednesday during the Holiday Bowl Directors Dinner in San Diego. “We had a tough year last year. Our thought process was to make it back and change things back to the way they had been.

“We've always come ready to play. That's the one thing that I think we pride ourselves in, that we will come ready to play. There's preparation with that. There's a mindset. We'll get ourselves going.”

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That tough year has been well-documented as Michigan State went from the College Football Playoff in 2015 to a 3-9 record in 2016. It ended a streak of nine straight bowl games for the Spartans and had some wondering if things could get turned around.

Michigan State answered that emphatically, going 9-3 and finishing 7-2 in the Big Ten while coming in second in the East.

Dantonio brushed off any mention of getting passed over for the Outback Bowl, calling it “old news.” Instead, he focused on the fact Michigan State is back in California for the first time since beating Stanford in the Rose Bowl following the 2013 season.

“We've got a lot of guys that have never been to the West Coast,” Dantonio said. “To come out here, see this part of the country, we have a large alumni base in Southern California, out in Arizona, as well. We'll represent that in great fashion. I think our guys are going to be excited.

“I've heard nothing but outstanding things about the Holiday Bowl throughout my coaching career. I think (MSU athletic director) Mark Hollis was assistant commissioner maybe for the WAC (and) at some point came to six of these bowl games, had great things to say about it.”

Michigan State, which finished the regular season No. 16 in the College Football Playoff rankings, will face a team unlike one they see on a regular basis in the Big Ten. Washington State ran for only 71 yards a game this season and makes no bones about throwing the ball.

Under coach Mike Leach’s “Air raid” offense, the Cougars can put up points in a hurry behind quarterback Luke Falk.

But Dantonio believes experience — Michigan State played Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl in 2009 when Leach was the head coach — will pay off.

“I think everybody takes something from somebody, so we've seen components of it,” Dantonio said. “I think they're the pioneers in that area, maybe the people that are the ones that do it the best certainly.

“Very good football team. Very well-coached. He's turned programs around, has done this other times. We played against Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl back in I think it was 2009. We've at least had some experience versus that offense. It goes all the way back to 2002. I had my 2002 notes out the other day from when I was at Ohio State.”

Washington State (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) finished No. 18 in the playoff rankings and is expecting plenty of points.

“I think it will be a shootout and a fantastic finish,” Leach said. “You got kind of contrasting styles. They're big and strong and physical. We're trying to maneuver some stuff around. I think it's a good matchup. I think it will be fun to watch.”