Acing ‘final exam’ would cap Michigan State turnaround

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

San Diego — If it’s not a playoff game, the bowls don’t matter.

That might be the general feeling this time of year around college football, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth for Michigan State.

As the Spartans get set to take on Washington State in the Holiday Bowl at 9 p.m. Thursday at SDCCU Stadium, the fact they’re playing in a bowl game with a chance to win 10 games this season brings plenty of meaning. The most obvious example is it provides a capper to a remarkable turnaround from a season ago. The six-win improvement from 3-9 to 9-3 already has matched a program record, and a win over the Cougars would establish a new mark.

It’s also a chance to prove that last season was the aberration, that Michigan State is back to where it should be — a highly ranked team that competes with the best in the country. This game shows that, as Michigan State enters the No. 16 team in the country according to the playoff rankings and Washington State is No. 18.

But what the Spartans and coach Mark Dantonio have focused on the past few weeks is winning a championship. No, it’s not a Big Ten title or even a national title, but becoming a bowl champion is something the Spartans won’t be taking lightly.

“I think any time you win a bowl game, if you do nothing but win that bowl game, you’re a bowl game champion,” Dantonio said. “You can stick champions on the end of your résumé for that particular year. That’s big. It sends everybody spinning in the right direction.

“If you lose it, you have to regroup a little bit. You regroup, you take in the consequences of your total season, look at it as a whole. You have to change things, mix things up, whatever you have to do, critique it. We do that anyway. Then you move forward.”

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Dantonio has done his share of winning at Michigan State, which has championships in the Cotton, Rose, Buffalo Wild Wings and Outback bowls under Dantonio’s lead. That goes with three Big Ten championships in the past 11 seasons.

But last season, things went the wrong direction, keeping the Spartans from a bowl game for the first time since 2006, the last season before Dantonio took over. Now, they’re relishing the fact they’re back to where they feel they belong.

“Yeah, this is huge for us,” senior center Brian Allen said. “A lot of good things come from getting a 10th win. We’re excited to try and get that and put this team on the right track for next year. It’s something that’s getting closer and closer to happening.”

To reach that point, Michigan State will take on a Washington State team that had a similar season, getting its share of big wins — the victory over then-No. 5 USC was the biggest — while suffering a couple of ugly losses.

But the real challenge from the Cougars is the unique way coach Mike Leach goes about things. He’s a character off the field, to be sure, but his offense is something Dantonio described Wednesday as “cutting edge.” The Cougars throw the ball more than 55 times a game and senior quarterback Luke Falk completed 66.9 percent of his passes this season for 3,593 yards and 30 touchdowns.

However, he did throw 13 interceptions, and the Spartans will focus on pressuring him.

“When you talk critical to winning, you’re always talking about protecting our quarterback and pressuring third down,” Dantonio said. “That’s the name of the game in college football and pro football as well as, get (the quarterback) off his dime, his landmark and good things happen with the defense. If he’s able to throw with time bad things happen for our defense.”

The Spartans feel they’re ready to take on the “Air Raid” offense, as they’ve seen plenty of high-tempo teams in the Big Ten as well as those that throw a lot.

It’s like the final exam Dantonio described the game as being, a true test that the defense has absorbed everything it took in this season on a week-to-week basis.

“Not many teams in the Midwest and teams we’ve faced have this type of offense,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “Throwing 60 times a game is ridiculous. We don’t see that very often. But I think it’s appropriate. It’s a combination of everything. We get Indiana and the fast tempo throwing the ball and Northwestern that throws the ball a lot. It’s a little bit of everything we faced, just like a final exam.

“We’re excited for the challenge.”

Washington State is hardly a one-dimensional team. Its defense is one of the best in the nation, ranking 14th in total defense while ranking as the best third-down defense.

“I think what gets lost in the shuffle a little bit is how good Washington State’s defense is,” Dantonio said. “They get on you, they play you tight, they provide pressure. A lot of different pressure, a lot of different people running from different places and you’ve got to beat them.”

Michigan State will strive to do just that, as it does every game. But there’s no doubt this one feels different.

The Spartans have a chance to be a champion again, a chance to pass that final exam.

“Now we have to close,” Dantonio said. “To me, closing is playing your very best. Doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but playing your very best.”

Holiday Bowl

Michigan State vs. Washington State

Kickoff: 9 p.m. Thursday, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 9-3, Washington State 9-3

Line: Michigan State by 1