Niyo: Challenge for MSU now is to remember humble beginnings

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Darrell Stewart fights off Washington State's Jalen Thompson for a first down.

The quarterback proved he could take a hit and keep on playing. So did the coaching staff that never lost faith when so many others did.

And now that Michigan State has capped a remarkable 2017 turnaround in style, with a dominant win over a ranked team in the Holiday Bowl, there’s no harm in stopping to look back before moving ahead.

In fact, it’s imperative the Spartans do it, and it sounds like head coach Mark Dantonio agrees.

“I think the biggest thing you learn as a young person or as a coach or anybody, is to get up after you've been knocked down,” Dantonio told reporters after the Spartans’ 42-17 win over Washington State on Thursday night. “Whether you're in a corporation or whether you're in a sport, the ability to stand up and continue to persevere when things don't look so well for you ... our football team did that. We came in with a mindset this year and came in with the goals.”

Now the No. 1 goal is to remember all that. To remember what it took to get back to where they feel they belong, as a Big Ten powerhouse and playoff contender. And above all, as a football program that's here to stay.

“100 wins in 11 years, you do the math,” Dantonio said, celebrating a milestone win less than six months removed from an offseason that shook his program to its core but never shook his belief in what he’d built.

“Last season, everybody doubted Coach,” senior co-captain Chris Frey. “We stuck with him, and one season isn't going to change who he is or the way he treats his team. For us to come out this year and give him back the program to where we believe it should be, it's huge for this team moving forward and even bigger for him.”

And now when you do the math on this Michigan State roster – with 53 first- and second-year players enjoying their first bowl trip in San Diego and only three senior starters on the field Thursday – it’s easy to start adding up the possibilities for 2018.

With Brian Lewerke at quarterback, the Spartans have the kind of playmaker needed to win big games. We saw that more than once in his first full season as a starter, and we saw it again in Thursday’s win, as Lewerke made plays with his feet early and then settled in and threw for 213 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with his highest passer rating of the season.

Perhaps more impressive, though, is the array of talent he’ll have surrounding him, from big receiving targets in Felton Davis and Cody White to a dynamic weapon in Darrell Stewart to a bruising lead back in LJ Scott, who let everyone in on a little secret after Thursday’s game, one he’d kept under wraps the last couple months.

Davis said Scott told him as far back as mid-October that he planned come back for his senior season next year, rather than entering the NFL draft early.

“We had a lot of unfinished business to take care of,” Davis said.

Graduation is one part of it, Dantonio said. But Davis later ticked off the rest of the list, in order.

“First one is winning the (Big Ten) East,” he said. “And then the Big Ten championship. And then put ourselves into a position to win the national championship.”

Dantonio isn’t about to argue with any of those items. He even added his own comparison, noting the decisions that Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun to stay as seniors after the 2014 season helped set the table for the Spartans’ Big Ten title and playoff berth the following year.

“I think those things become possible,” Dantonio said.

If nothing else, that’s what this last year proved for the Spartans. The possibilities may not be endless, but they’re certainly not over yet.

That’s why this was the perfect way to end the season in so many ways. The disappointment of getting passed over for a Jan. 1 bowl was real, but it only served as motivation. (“We came out here on sort of a mission,” Dantonio said.) And it showed on the field Thursday as the Spartans looked far more focused and more prepared than the Cougars.

Surely it would’ve made a difference if Washington State’s senior quarterback, Luke Falk, had been in uniform. And if the Cougars’ top two receivers hadn’t left the program earlier this month. And if All-American defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa hadn’t been forced to miss the first half of Thursday’s game due to a targeting penalty in Washington State's regular-season finale.

But it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Not the way Michigan State came to play.

“I thought it was great,” Dantonio said. “If you look at that football game, we won because we won it physically. That's the reality of it.”

So is this: Hunger and humility were big reasons this Michigan State program rebounded the way it did. And that’ll bear watching through the winter and next spring, as Dantonio, who stuck to his principles and resisted the calls for major staff changes last winter, makes sure the lessons of last year aren’t forgotten, or ignored.

“I would like to say we're back, but 2018 is around the corner,” he said. “So you can't say that, because you've got to start proving yourself all over again.”