'Weight lifted' from their shoulders, but it's still win or go home for Spartans
East Lansing — While other top teams across the country are calculating their College Football Playoff odds, the math is pretty simple for Michigan State.
It’s bowl or bust. Win or go home.
It’s a situation the Spartans never envisioned they’d be in heading into this season. But it’s the reality they face as they prepare for Saturday’s regular-season finale against a scuffling Maryland squad.
“I think the standard, as I told our football team yesterday, I don't care where you're at in the scheme things within your schedule, when you win your sixth game you meet the minimum in terms of accomplishment,” coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “You're bowl eligible, you have a chance for a winning season.
“So, we'll build on that and we'll deal with that as we move forward. The only thing that we change is the future. While we're disappointed in where we are, we still have an opportunity to play ourselves forward and that's what we'll do.”
Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) was able to pull out of a five-game tailspin with a 27-0 shutout of Rutgers on Saturday to give itself a shot to salvage what’s left of a disappointing and frustrating 2019 campaign.
While any chance at the Big Ten title and a New Year’s Six bowl went out window last month, the Spartans will look to gain bowl eligibility for the 12th time in 13 seasons and become just the third Big Ten team to do so since 2007, joining Wisconsin (13) and Ohio State (12).
As of Tuesday, most bowl projections are predicting Michigan State will beat Maryland, who has lost six straight by an average margin of 35.2 points, and will make the short trip to Detroit for the Quick Lane Bowl in an ACC-Big Ten matchup.
"I've said many times that our guys have stayed the course in terms of their attitude, their chemistry, their enthusiasm and energy. It's been impressive,” Dantonio said. “We've got good senior leadership from our guys. Things don't always go the way that you planned them, but at the same time they've responded accordingly. I thought that this past weekend … a weight was lifted from their shoulders a little bit just getting the win.
“It's been a difficult time progressing through those things — the five games previous, a little of the off-weeks, having to deal with being off those two weeks surrounding those things — we stayed focused and we kept going. I've been impressed with that and look forward to that this week as well.”
And this week, Michigan State finds itself in a similar must-win situation like it did back in 2012. After a rough stretch saw the Spartans drop four of five games, they entered the finale — a road game at Minnesota — with a 5-6 mark.
Michigan State rose to the challenge and reeled off a 26-10 win over the Gophers before going on to beat TCU, 17-16, in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Dantonio referenced that season to his team last week to drive home the message of what’s at stake and “what we have to do to meet the basic threshold.”
“I do think when I look back to 2012, we had to go up in the cold and win away from home,” Dantonio said. “That sets us on to a string of 36-5 over the next 41 games. That was a mindset-type game and what I would call a program game.”
Dantonio added multiple factors have led to Michigan State being in this position once again. There have been the injuries and lack of “stability” along the offensive line. There are the “officiating decisions” that didn’t go the team’s way. He also cited the way the schedule was set up, dropped passes and issues in the deep part of the field with players misjudging the ball.
“You can for sure find two more wins in that area,” Dantonio said.
And now, the possibility to rack up two more wins and avoid finishing below .500 for the second time in four years is all that Michigan State has left.
“We played our way into those situations and I also believe success breeds confidence. If you're successful and all of a sudden find yourself 7-0 or 8-0 like the 2011 team, then you're much more confident going into the next game,” Dantonio said. “The other aspect occurs as well. You start to spiral downward a little bit. You start saying, 'OK, what's next?' I think our players have remained above that and that's been impressive.
“We are where we're at. We still have a chance to have a winning season and that's all that we can affect right now. Maryland is up on the clock. We're going to get ourselves ready to play against Maryland and figure everything else out after the fact.”
Maryland at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Michigan State 5-6, 3-5 Big Ten; Maryland 3-8, 1-7
Line: Michigan State by 22