East Lansing — The last time Michigan State stood on the field, the heads were hanging, the shoulders were slumped.
The Spartans were a beaten team physically, to be sure, but mentally as well. They’d just been demoralized in a 38-0 loss at Wisconsin one week after getting blown out by Ohio State, 34-10.
A season that began with optimism and talks of competing for the Big Ten East had quickly and unequivocally been dashed, the chance of getting back to the conference championship game effectively eliminated.
“It’s a great week for a bye week,” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said that day in Madison.
Two weeks later, Michigan State returns to the field, set to host No. 7 Penn State at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. It’s the third straight game the Spartans (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) have faced a top-10 team and considering it’s the only time they’ll play in three weeks — MSU has its second bye next week — it’s a good time to try and prove that the time off has been exactly what the Spartans needed.
“Young people are resilient,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That's first and foremost what you see in them. They came back and we're working on health, working on strength and working on a lot of different components, practicing, refocusing, those type of things.
“Young people have always been resilient and believe very strongly in themselves. Certainly there's disappointment, but people get up off the ground quick around here, and that's what you have to do. If you're going to succeed in the next step, then you'd better get your mind right and get back up. That's been the message from day one around here since we've walked in.”
It’s a message the Spartans desperately needed after a few days off.
Following the loss at Wisconsin, the players watched some film then took the first half of last week off. By the time the Spartans returned for a pair of practices on Thursday and Friday, the attitude had changed significantly.
For some, it was about returning to an attitude that had been missing. By doing so, getting back on the practice field didn’t feel so much like work.
“In terms of swagger, it’s about that fun that we had,” Bachie said. “That fun that you had playing football since you were five or six years old, or whenever it was you started. You always had fun playing football and for some reason, it looks like we kind of lost that the past couple of weeks.
“The body is fresh, the mind is fresh so we should be very excited about this matchup.”
Just feeling better is only part of the battle. When it comes to really turning things around and coming out on the winning end for the first time in roughly a month, it will take execution and attention to detail that has been lacking the past few weeks.
“We’ve gotten a little bit away from our technique, I felt, which is all from practice and practice habits,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “We’ve got to continue to practice hard throughout the season even as the season wears on because that shows up on Saturdays when you don’t.
“We’ve got to get back to that Spartan Dawg defense, flying around and having fun out there and just doing the little things right.”
That word — fun — popped up a lot this week around the Spartans’ practice facility.
It’s easy for that to disappear when almost nothing is going right on the field, but it can return quickly. And knocking off an unbeaten team with playoff hopes would certainly help.
Penn State (7-0, 4-0) is coming off a big win over Michigan last week but has beaten Michigan State only once in the last six meetings. The Spartans, in fact, have won two in a row in the series, both as underdogs.
They’ll be in a similar position this time but in order to do win for a third consecutive time against the Nittany Lions, the defense will have to avoid giving up big plays and the offense will need to return to the unit that managed to score 71 points in wins over Northwestern and Indiana before mustering just 10 the past two games.
“I'm sure they know they can't lay off and we can't lay off this week,” Bachie said. “It's a big game. It’s for the Land Grant Trophy and we've had it the past two years and four of the past five and we know they're gonna be ready to go. They're 7-0, they have big goals and this is a big game this week because we have big goals, too.”
Those goals might not be what they were to begin this season, but ending a two-game skid, improving possible bowl position and derailing a potential championship season for an opponent are pretty big, too.
And, for most the Spartans, it’s even simpler than that. They want to have fun playing football again.
“It’s definitely just about playing football,” junior cornerback Josiah Scott said. “Just not really focused on anybody else but getting back to you. It’s been kind of like spring ball, just playing, you know, just having fun and getting back to what we do.”
Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo preview UM-Notre Dame and MSU-Penn State on this week's College Football Show. The Detroit News