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'Here we are': Stunned Spartans in scramble mode to earn bowl bid

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — There were plenty of adjectives to use on Saturday afternoon as Michigan State’s players and its head coach tried to describe what had just happened at Michigan Stadium.

The 44-10 loss to Michigan  the worst in the series for the Spartans since a 49-3 defeat in 2002  was called “disappointing” by coach Mark Dantonio while junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons described the Spartans as “stunned” with fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams calling the 467 total yards allowed “ridiculous.”

All were apt descriptions, and it’s likely there was some more colorful language used in the locker room or the living rooms of Michigan State fans around the state.

However, as fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke spoke after the game  the fifth straight loss for Michigan State  there was, for the first time, a hint of a player who was starting to feel anger over how the season has turned out.

“Obviously upset,” Lewerke said after going 17-for-30 passing for 166 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in his final meeting with the Wolverines. “This is the last time I’ll play them so a little bit upset, but we’ve got to win two games to make it to a bowl game.”

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke and the Spartans need to win out to qualify for a bowl game this season.

Ah yes. The silver lining, or, as silver as it can get for a team that began the season expecting to play for a championship but instead finds itself scrambling just to become bowl eligible with its two remaining games against lowly Rutgers and Maryland.

It’s not the position Lewerke thought he’d be in during his final season.

“Yeah, I definitely didn't think that we would be in the situation we're in right now,” he said. “But here we are, and we need these two wins to get to a bowl game.”

There’s plenty of reasons why Michigan State (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) is where it is right now. Sure, there have been plenty of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, but that comes across much more as an excuse than a reality. Instead, this is a team that never really progressed after winning 10 games in 2017.

The core of that group was around last year for a fairly uninspiring 7-6 mark and the same core is here now, wondering why all of its experience has mattered little as the offense has continued to be among the worst in the nation and the once-intimidating defense has lost its edge.

Lewerke offered what seemed like a bit of a glimpse.

“There's only so much people can do before people start listening and doing the right thing and not committing penalties,” he said after the demoralizing loss to the Wolverines. “You got to get in their head. I don't think it's a huge deal, but we gotta make sure we're on the same page offensively. Too many mistakes, (missed assignments), all that stuff.”

For the first time, it appears, Michigan State didn’t feel together. Even as the losses piled up, the idea of chemistry being affected never seemed to surface, certainly not like in 2016 when a fractured locker room helped play a significant role in a 3-9 season a year after reaching the College Football Playoff.

However, as the reality of a five-game skid has set in, the frustration has come with it. It’s easy to understand. The Spartans believed they’d be pushing to win the Big Ten East and at least come close to getting back to Indianapolis for the conference championship game for the first time since 2015.

Instead, the only thing left to play for is a lower-tier bowl game.

And while Lewerke seemed to indicate everyone isn’t on the same page, Dantonio believes his team will continue to work toward the only goal left.

“I don't like losing these guys,” Dantonio said on Saturday. “I don't think you’ve got to reinvigorate me. I don't like losing, period. But got to get ready for the next one. There are a lot of disappointing things that we need to correct, but we’ll continue to hold our players accountable to how they play but also to how hard they play and I think we're going to play hard.

“We will play hard. We'll get ready to play and our chemistry, I think, is good, and I think that our work ethic on the field on game days is solid. We’ll come to play and compete, but we’ve got to play better though.”

By the time the Spartans take the field next Saturday against Rutgers, they’ll surely be dialed back in, focused on getting their first win since beating Indiana on Sept. 28.

It won’t be simple, and there’s likely still some lingering frustration. And even if there is some division or a lack of attention to detail, it’s clear the approach the Spartans need will be more like what Simmons described.

“We just gotta keep fighting, just got to keep fighting,” Simmons said. “I keep saying it over and over again, but we got to keep fighting. We have to. As soon as we roll over — I said this a few weeks ago, it can be a lot worse than this. A lot worse. So, we just got to keep fighting and show we're tough and we're not gonna quit.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau