Michigan State's Tyriq Thompson, Antjuan Simmons and Xavier Henderson talk about the shutout win over Rutgers. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Piscataway, N.J. — It didn’t clinch a championship.
It didn’t mean a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
It didn’t mean the likelihood of a premier bowl game.
Michigan State’s 27-0 victory over Rutgers on Saturday likely drew a collective shrug from the rest of the Big Ten, and why not? The Spartans long ago bowed out of any sort of championship race with five straight losses, while Rutgers has continued to be the elixir for every team in the conference that has needed a little pick-me-up.
The Spartans were glad to be the latest to take advantage of the fact the Scarlet Knights are an awful football team, one that never really tested the staggering Michigan State defense, and did little to keep the offense from moving up and down the field.
But don’t try and tell Michigan State this win didn’t matter. The program was reeling, and just days after Mark Dantonio declared he would return next season for his 14th as the Spartans’ head coach, they were in desperate need of something positive. Anything, really.
So who cares if it happened to come at the expense of a team averaging more points a game than only four other teams in the country? It was a win, and that, by itself, was enough for Michigan State.
“You know things haven’t been perfect these last couple of weeks,” Dantonio said in a massive understatement. “Throughout every practice we came with energy in practice and worked hard to prepare for this football game. So the goal was as simple as ‘Go 1-0.’ We were able to do that.”
Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) was able to do that for one week. It didn’t erase what has taken place this season. It didn’t erase the 323 rushing yards allowed to Ohio State, or the shutout loss to Wisconsin, or the 27 fourth-quarter points allowed to Illinois or the worst defeat at the hands of Michigan in Dantonio’s tenure.
And it didn’t guarantee anything moving forward. However, it proved the Spartans still care. They still want to reach a bowl game, even if it means playing at the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Because getting to a bowl game, any bowl game, is better than none at all, and getting the win on Saturday was the first step toward that goal.
“It is big for our confidence,” fifth-year senior linebacker Tyriq Thompson said. “As we know, this was a game that we definitely could win, and we needed to win. Our goal coming into this week was to get to a bowl game. Go 1-0, this was the first step of doing that. We got our last home game next week against Maryland, so that's definitely the goal, to go 2-0 after next week.”
Pulling that off won’t ignite a celebration like the kinds the Spartans have had in the past. Players on this roster have seen the real celebrations. The fifth-year and sixth-year players were all around when Michigan State won the Big Ten and reached the College Football Playoff in 2015.
So, no, getting to six wins won’t be the same.
Still, just getting a win for the first time in almost two months was big. Not scream and carry on big, but more of a relief.
“It just feels good, you know?” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said Saturday from SHI Stadium. “It feels good. It feels good, getting a win and then we’ve got another one next week. So we’ll go celebrate tonight and shift the focus tomorrow.”
Simmons has been one of the more outspoken players over the last few weeks. As many have tried their best to explain what has gone wrong, questions started lingering about the direction of the program.
However, Simmons was never the one wavering. After the Michigan loss he snapped back when it was suggested the Spartans had lost their way.
“I still believe in this program,” Simmons said. “I still love every single person within this program.”
Obviously, the optimism hadn’t waned after Michigan State won for the first time since Sept. 28. For Simmons, the win was twofold — it brought some relief from the losing, while providing some level of confidence heading into the season finale and beyond.
“I think they’re pretty much the same thing,” Simmons said. “Just getting a little momentum going in the next week and getting a positive mindset. Let's go.”
And so Michigan State goes. Not for a trip to the Big Ten Championship game, but for a group many have been counting out, it’s something.
For the seniors, who know the next game could be their last, it’s especially important. Dantonio believes that has value. He sees the players that are coming to the end fighting for everything they can get.
“Everybody wants to continue on,” Dantonio said. “I think that’s the nature of our football team, I can't speak for everybody, but (it is) of our football team. You want to be as good as you can be. So whether that's play-to-play or game-to-game, the attitude is right. We've had a lot of injuries and if you look at our senior group, and you look and say, ‘Who are seniors and who is actually playing?’ You get about six or seven guys, maybe, or eight guys that are playing that are seniors.
“So, it hasn't gone the way they wanted to go because the injuries and other things, too. But they've stayed the course and I think that at this point in time, as I said to them in the locker room — first of all I’m very appreciative of how they they've done things — but they've stayed the course and they come to practice and their attitude has been excellent. As a coach, you appreciate that and want to recognize it.”