Refocused Michigan State looks to recapture 'emotion' for Penn State showdown

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing  — Mark Dantonio watched every play of Wisconsin’s upset loss at Illinois last Saturday.

Apparently, that’s what a football coach does when he has a Saturday off — watch football.

Michigan State is looking to regain some emotion as it entertains Penn State on Saturday.

What the Michigan State coach took away from the Fighting Illini’s stunning last-second victory, though, was simple.

“I would say emotion plays a big part in every football game,” Dantonio said. “You can see the emotion and you can see a game start to change a little bit and people start to have a little bit more belief. They were 30½-point underdogs, and gave you the notion that anybody can rise up at any point in time and if you take small steps, those small victories become big victories at the end.”

It's an example Dantonio hopes his team follows.

After back-to-back blowout losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, Michigan State had its first of two bye weeks. And as the Spartans (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) get back to work in an effort to turn the season back around, that emotion will be counted on heavily.

“I think it was good to get away for a couple days,” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “When you get away from it a little bit, you kind of realize how much you know you miss it and you know you enjoy the game. I thought Thursday, Friday last week we had great practices before we went home for the weekend.

“We came back (Tuesday) with a lot of energy. It was a little cold out there so we stayed warm by running around having fun.”

Having fun seems to be a theme around Michigan State this week. That can be hard to do when a once-promising season has started to slip away. The Spartans have been outscored 72-10 in the last two games, hardly a reason for fun.

While emotion can certainly help a team reset, there is also the demand that it play better. Michigan State’s defense, especially, is trying to do both.

“I feel like it's both (fundamentals) and emotion,” junior cornerback Josiah Scott said. “We're not as bad as what we've been putting on film, so it's kind of getting back to that mindset. We’ve played really good defense the past two years we played really good defense this year. It’s just kind of getting back to that mindset that we can be one of the best defenses in the country.”

Scott is right. For the most part, Michigan State has been one of the best defenses in the nation over the past couple of seasons. However, something has been missing over the past few weeks.

It began by allowing 31 points in a win over Indiana, followed by Ohio State piling up 529 total yards, including 323 on the ground. Wisconsin picked up from there, running for 222 in a 38-0 shutout of the Spartans.

By late in both the Ohio State and Wisconsin games, it was clear that Michigan State didn’t have any answers.

“There’s definitely frustration,” fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “When three teams in a row put 30 points on you, you gotta look at yourself in the mirror and hold yourself accountable. As a leader, as a captain on the team, just look in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better? How can I get better and lead these guys to be a better defense?’”

Playing loose is the first step, having fun like Bachie talked about.

Or, as Scott said, not worrying about the opponent as much and getting back to what has made Michigan State such a good defensive team.

“It’s really just resetting ourselves,” Scott said. “We’re getting back to having fun and playing football and just focusing on us. So that's really been a big emphasis this week, just getting back to our defense and just focusing on us and just re-centering ourselves.”

It’s not just a defensive issue, either.

An offense that had started to find at least a little momentum at the beginning of Big Ten play has come to a screeching halt. Michigan State gained 285 yards in the loss at Ohio State before picking up just 149 at Wisconsin, a decent chunk of those coming late in the game when the backups had taken over.

While the defensive players relished the break, it appears so did the offense.

“It was a little refreshing to sit back and just relax,” said quarterback Brian Lewerke, who took in the Lions-Vikings game Sunday in Detroit, “and trying to refocus and get ready for the next game.”

The next game will be a tough one. No. 7 Penn State (7-0, 4-0) is allowing just 10 points a game, a number bested only by Michigan State’s last two opponents.

Getting things going again against the Nittany Lions won’t be easy, but the Spartans believe the same re-centering the defense talked about will benefit the offense, as well.

“That bye week also humbled us and it made us more hungry,” fifth-year senior receiver Darrell Stewart said. “You refresh yourself. I mean, two weeks in a row were not the result we were looking for but at the same time I mean that bye week really helped us turn things around. We had a couple of great practices, so I'm pretty sure that we’re ready to go for this week.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau