Matt Charboneau takes a look at Michigan State's regular-season finale against Rutgers on Saturday in East Lansing. The Detroit News
East Lansing — Andrew Dowell understands a little something about bouncing back.
Or, as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio describes it, “getting off the mat.”
Dowell and his fellow seniors have been through the ups and downs of college football, experiencing the extremes of winning and losing as much as any player might in a four- or five-year career.
The current group of Michigan State seniors, which play their final home game at 4 p.m. Saturday against Rutgers, have been Big Ten champions and played in the College Football Playoff. They’ve also followed that up with a three-win season only to rebound with 10 victories in 2017.
So, dealing with frustration of their final season — one that has included some key victories but far too many weeks where the Spartans have fallen short — is something they’ve got some experience with. And, for the final time at Spartan Stadium, the seniors expect to show what sort of character exists at Michigan State.
“Just being resilient,” Dowell said this week. “Always getting up off the mat, as Coach D says. We’ve been knocked down a few times, lost some close games. It can be frustrating, but it’s about how are we gonna respond? How do we attack the next week?”
Through the bulk of Dantonio’s 12 seasons, the Spartans have excelled at how they attack the week after a letdown. And that’s the best way to describe last week, a 9-6 loss at Nebraska that saw the Michigan State offense fail to find the end zone for the second straight week.
But that’s been the theme all season, really. The offense hasn’t played well most of the year while the defense has done its best to keep the Spartans in the game every week. It’s worked often enough for the Spartans to be preparing for a bowl game, but not well enough to keep Michigan State in the Big Ten title hunt.
That disappeared two weeks ago after the loss to Ohio State, one that followed the same theme as losses to Michigan and Northwestern earlier in the season.
However, last week’s defeat at the hands of a Nebraska team that opened the season with six straight losses might have been the low point of the season. The defense was dominant, once again, stifling a potent Cornhuskers offense. But the Spartans couldn’t convert with the ball, leaving them in a position this week where they’re searching for more than just a victory.
“Right now, what I'm looking for is a response; a response from our players, coaches, our staff, people that are involved,” Dantonio said. “When you get knocked down, you get back up, and that's the message of this football game, of the game of football. It’s not easy. I've said that many times coming in here, it's not easy.
“So, we're looking for a response. Our players have come to play every single weekend. They have been excited. Chemistry is good, and we'll come to play. Sometimes when you're facing difficult situations, you've got to move it forward and we will do that.”
Michigan State (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) has the benefit of facing Rutgers in the season finale, a team that has been a mess all season. The Scarlet Knights (1-10, 0-8) won the season opener against Texas State but haven’t had a victory since.
Third-year coach Chris Ash is on the hot seat — though it appears he’ll be back for a fourth season — and last week’s 20-7 loss at home to Penn State was seen as a “victory” because the Scarlet Knights were able to at least keep it close.
That, combined with the fact Michigan State isn’t playing for much other than bowl position and it being a holiday weekend, has some wondering how many empty seats there will be Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Dantonio did his best this week to make a pitch for the fans to show up.
“We've had 50,000 fans there at a spring game,” Dantonio said. “I don't ask for much sometimes. I just keep moving in the direction forward, but you know, this is a moment for our seniors. It's Senior Day.
“I think our seniors really have experienced everything. They have experienced championship moments, winning a Big Ten championship, going to the playoff games. They have also experienced a tough 2016 followed by a 10-win season. So, it's an opportunity to say goodbye to them and have a positive experience there.”
For those who are there, the Spartans are expecting to answer the challenge given by their coach.
“We can say whatever we want throughout the week, but the response comes Saturday after four quarters of play,” junior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “I’ll give you that response after the game.”
Michigan State vs. Rutgers
Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Michigan State 6-5, 4-4 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-10, 0-8
Line: Michigan State by 27