'We'll rise up:' Michigan State turns focus to Rutgers, not struggles

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb. — It was only about three weeks ago that Michigan State was starting to smell the roses.

Well, at least the Spartans were thinking about potentially smelling the roses. They had just beaten Purdue behind the play of its defense and a spark from redshirt freshman quarterback Rocky Lombardi, and the idea of still making a run at the Big Ten East title or at least a record that could land them in a New Year’s Six game — ideally the Rose Bowl — was now a possibility.

Michigan State tight end Matt Dotson (89) can't hold on to the ball in the end zone in the first half. The Spartans have gone two games without scoring a touchdown.

As it turns out, that possibility was more likely a pipe dream.

Three weeks later, Michigan State has won just once, going on the road and beating a Maryland team that had two head coaches in a matter of a couple of days. That was followed by back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Nebraska where the Spartans didn’t score a single touchdown.

Now, with just one game remaining — Michigan State hosts Rutgers at 4 p.m. next Saturday — the Spartans are trying to avoid a .500 season and hoping they can improve their bowl position. That position, though, won’t come anywhere near a New Year’s Six game.

More: Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Nebraska

“I keep saying to our players, because what else do you say sometimes?” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “The difference between winning and losing is so small, you really can cut it with a knife sometimes. It’s so small. It’s also the difference between joy and frustration. There’s enough of that to go around.

“But I tell our players, ‘You gotta keep pushing. Sometimes life will hit ya, and we’ve had a lot of games where we won close games.’ We’re going through a spell here, but we’ll rise up.”

The spell has been in place for much of the season as the offense has never found any consistent success, while the defense has been outstanding. But it’s been especially true over the last three weeks during the time of the season that Dantonio says is the most critical.

Just three weeks ago after the Spartans beat Purdue, Dantonio was talking about what was potentially ahead for Michigan State.

“A lot of things can happen,” he said, “and we’re in a situation in November now where we can play our way into something special.”

Three weeks later, special is nowhere to be found, unless, of course, you start looking closely at how good Michigan State has been defensively. But, as Dantonio pointed out on Saturday afternoon, they don’t keep score on just one side the ball. As he said, “it’s all-inclusive.”

And that leaves Michigan State (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) where it is now — an average team that will attempt to find some motivation for its final home game of the season.

“It shouldn’t be too difficult,” Lombardi said. “It’s the last home game for the seniors and there’s a lot of passion coming out of Senior Day. Obviously, those guys have sacrificed their lives for four, five years for this team. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get the morale (up), get the team going for the game.

“But it is tough. It’s not what we want.”

It’s not what Michigan State wanted, but it’s the result of what has been an uphill battle all season.

From the opener the Spartans squeaked out against Utah State to frustrating losses at Arizona State and Nebraska along with home losses to Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State, the Spartans have walked away shaking their heads, feeling like they missed out on something.

Trying to avoid that against a one-win Rutgers team is all that’s left.

“We gotta send (the seniors) out on the right note at Spartan Stadium,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We gotta get them that win. Rutgers is gonna come in ready to go, and this should be a game we should win. We’ve been saying that all season and we haven’t been able to win some of these games.

“We just gotta get to work again on Monday.”

There will be a bowl game after that. Where and when will start to take shape over the next two weeks. The Spartans will be happy the season doesn’t end after Saturday, though they’ll likely be thinking about what they were unable to accomplish.

That could lead to thinking about next year. But for now, Bachie insists the future will wait.

“After the bowl game,” he said when asked about thoughts of 2019. “Right now we need to get ready for Rutgers and then for a bowl game. We can’t worry about next year. We can only control what happens this week.”


Twitter @mattcharboneau