Michigan State will take 'wounded animal mentality' into final stretch
East Lansing — Once again calling young people “resilient” on Tuesday, Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio’s team will get yet another chance to prove him right going forward.
The Spartans (4-4, 2-3 Big Ten) have plenty of reasons for continuing to crumble as the season slides downhill and focus shifts to a highly touted men’s basketball team, which opens its season Tuesday night to much fanfare.
Still, with three straight blowout losses, a tough scheduling calendar, a drug suspension to a senior leader, and a couple key injuries sprinkled in, Dantonio went to the well Tuesday for his typical call to action at his weekly press conference.
“Sort of a wounded animal a little bit, type of mentality,” Dantonio said. “We know what we have to get done. We understand the situation I think that we're in here with just where we've been and what's gone on.”
Making matters worse on the field is that injuries to wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. and center Matt Allen mean both will miss Saturday’s home against Illinois (5-4, 3-3) in the beginning of a four-game stretch to close the regular season.
Off the field, senior captain Joe Bachie was suspended last week by the Big Ten after the linebacker tested positive for a supplement that is classified as a performance-enhancing substance banned by the league.
Dantonio said Bachie addressed the team, and while he said he will keep most of the details in-house, it was a meeting of “disappointment” and “sorrow.”
The coach said Bachie will continue to be around the team, including on game days, but cannot practice during the suspension.
“It was a tough deal last Thursday when we made the announcement to the team,” Dantonio said. “Joe is still start part of our football team, comes to practices, and is basically still a student coach. He wants to be involved with us.”
Pending the appeal, which Dantonio wouldn’t comment on, Bachie’s career at Michigan State is over. The leading tackler this season at MSU, Bachie had 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception.
As a sophomore in 2017, Bachie was voted Team MVP and named third-team All-Big Ten. In his junior season, Bachie was named a captain, finished with 102 tackles and was named first-team All-Big Ten.
He was named a Butkus Award semifinalist on Monday as the nation’s top linebacker, clearly an award he won’t win without a successful appeal and return to action.
Dantonio defended his training staff, saying education on these matters is “constant.”
“They are fully aware,” Dantonio said of his players. “Absolutely. Fully aware. Our training staff and our weight staff, they do a great job. So, fully aware.”
Sophomore Noah Harvey was listed on the depth chart as Bachie's replacement at middle linebacker. He's played in all eight games this season but has seven total tackles. Junior Dante Razzano and redshirt freshman Ed Warinner, the son of Michigan's offensive line coach of the same name, were listed behind Harvey.
"Everybody has an opportunity, everybody has a time," Dantonio said. "This is (Harvey's) time that gives him an opportunity, as well as a couple other guys, to get in the mix and play well. We expect him to play well."
Stewart, a fifth-year senior, suffered a leg injury on Oct. 26 against Penn State. He’s the team’s leading receiver with 47 receptions, 694 yards and four touchdowns.
Allen was injured in the fourth quarter against Penn State. Dantonio said he expects both players to be back before the season ends.
Sophomore Blake Bueter "or" freshman Nick Samac were listed on the depth chart at center, and Laress Nelson is listed as the receiver replacing Stewart in the "F" position.
After a 4-1 start to the season, the Spartans have been outscored 100-17 in losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. The stretch has included bye weeks on two of the last three weekends, a scheduling anomaly that Dantonio has bemoaned.
The Spartans need two wins to become bowl eligible with games Nov. 16 at Michigan, Nov. 23 at Rutgers and Nov. 30 at home against Maryland to close the stretch.
Illinois comes to Spartan Stadium for a 3:35 p.m. game on a three-game win streak, using a strong closing effort on Oct. 12 in a loss against Michigan as a springboard to wins against No. 6 Wisconsin, Purdue and Rutgers for coach Lovie Smith’s team.
Dantonio said senior Brian Lewerke will start at quarterback on Saturday, despite appearances in the Penn State game by reserves Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day.
"I'm not going to sit there and say never, ever," Dantonio said about a possible switch down the stretch. "But he is our quarterback at this time and I still believe in him in terms of getting the job done, throwing the ball, running the ball, and allows us to win."
Dantonio pointed toward an inspiring MSU effort in 2015, when down quarterback Connor Cook, backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry led a 17-14 upset at the No. 3 Buckeyes.
"The bottom line is, can you win?" Dantonio said. "That's what I'm focused on. What do you have to do to win a football game?"
Dantonio was asked if this was the toughest stretch he's had to endure in his 13 years in East Lansing, a roller coaster ride of tremendous highs, coupled with spells of on- and off-field tumult.
"The bar is set high; the bar is high," Dantonio said. "You know, you learn to deal with things, and I told our football team, at times, it can always get worse. It really can. And I also said, 'How strong are you?'
"How strong are you as an individual to hold up to things that happened, whether it's a missed play on the field or whatever case off the field? You know, how strong are you? What do you have to do to stick your foot in the ground and drive back forward?"
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Illinois at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: FS1/760 AM
Records: Michigan State 4-4 (2-3 Big Ten), Illinois 5-4 (3-3)
Line: Michigan State by 12