Michigan State seeks another 'program game,' just like critical 2012 finale
East Lansing — Michigan State has had its share of defining moments over the last 13 seasons.
From the day Mark Dantonio became the head coach in late 2006 and took the field for the first time in the fall of 2007, the Spartans program has experienced arguably its best stretch ever.
Three Big Ten championships, six 10-win seasons, a spot in the College Football Playoff, an 8-5 record against Michigan while Michigan State was the only Big Ten team to beat an Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State team more than once.
The three-year stretch from 2013-15 was high-water mark. The Spartans went 36-5, won two conference titles, got to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years and made the playoff. Those moments have been properly celebrated over the years, held up as what Dantonio believes the standard should be at Michigan State.
The groundwork for that run, though, came as Michigan State limped to the finish in 2012. The Spartans lost five games that season by a total of 13 points and dropped every conference home game. Entering the final game of the season at Minnesota, the Spartans were 5-6 and needed a win just to become bowl eligible.
Instead of packing it in, the Spartans demonstrated a glimpse of the character that would allow them to dominate the Big Ten for the next three seasons. Le’Veon Bell ran for 266 yards while a budding defense was outstanding in a 26-10 victory. A month later, Michigan State rallied to beat TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl behind a redshirt freshman quarterback named Connor Cook, who went on to become the winningest quarterback in program history.
“I do think when I look back at 2012, we had to go up in the cold and win away from home,” Dantonio said. “That set us on to a string of 38-5.
“So that was a mindset-type game, a program game.”
The big question now is, can Michigan State (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) do that again while facing similar circumstances? Can the Spartans take what can only be described as a disappointing season and do more than just salvage it, but provide some sort of positive direction for the future?
The first step, of course, is beating Maryland (3-8, 1-7). After a quick start to the season that saw the Terrapins score 142 points in the first two weeks and get everyone talking about a bowl game, the bottom has fallen out.
Maryland’s only win since has been against a Rutgers team that hasn’t won a Big Ten game and fired its coach while it has allowed no fewer than 34 points in its other conference games. Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Spartan Stadium, the Terrapins rank 109th in the nation in total offense and 107th in total defense.
“When you look at Maryland right now, they have gone through some challenges themselves, a lot of injuries much like us,” Dantonio said. “Probably later than earlier, their injuries have affected so many different things in their program, as well.”
Like using four different quarterbacks. But considering the fluid nature of Michigan State’s depth chart over the last two years, the Spartans don’t feel bad. They’ll be happy to take advantage of Maryland’s woes if it means going out with a win for the seniors and locking up a spot in a bowl game.
“When you win your sixth game, you sort of meet the minimum in terms of accomplishment,” Dantonio said. “You're bowl eligible.”
It’s not how the seniors expected to go out. The group that’s been at Michigan State for five years — punter Jake Hartbarger and wide receiver Brandon Sowards have played six seasons — was part of the playoff team in 2015 and many were a big part of the 10-win season in 2017.
So just scrapping for a low-level bowl wasn’t the goal, at least it wasn’t when the season began.
It is now.
“Having my last regular season game at Spartan Stadium and getting a win that would get us to .500 would be good,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “Obviously, this program expects more than we’ve done this year, but getting a win would be a step in the right direction.”
That it would, and only time will tell if it provides a step toward getting Michigan State back into contention in the Big Ten and fighting to reach the conference championship game and potential playoff berths.
There are obstacles that will need to be overcome. Dantonio will be back next season, but his staff will almost certainly change and the recruiting needs to pick up. However, there are some signs with young talent already seeing the field. The Spartans have used 15 true freshmen this season and a handful are already starting, providing a glimpse of the future.
Michigan State will need some better luck on the injury front and could stand to find a few diamonds in the rough like they did in the past with the likes of Bell and Jack Conklin and Kirk Cousins.
The chance to take a step, at least, begins now with getting another, reaching a bowl and piling up another 15 practices.
“You have a chance for a winning season and things of that nature,” Dantonio said. “We'll build on that as we move forward. The only thing we can sort of change is the future. While we are disappointed in where we are at, we still have an opportunity to play ourselves forward and that's what we'll do.”
Maryland at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Maryland 3-8, 1-7 Big Ten; Michigan State 5-6, 3-5
Line: Michigan State by 22.5