Spartans start with fresh slate vs. Furman

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It’s been eight months since Michigan State last stepped onto the football field, and quite frankly, the Spartans are ready to put that last game behind them.

“The only focus right now is on Furman, which is the next opponent,” MSU lineman Kodi Kieler says.

That, of course, was the 38-0 loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. It was Michigan State’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff, and early in the second half things started going in the wrong direction.

Needless to say, the 12th-ranked Spartans are eager to take the field at 7 Friday when they host Furman in the season-opener at Spartan Stadium.

“We’re excited,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “Every new season is exciting just because the offseason has been so long. We’ve put in so much work, so to get out there and show that off a little bit is always exciting, especially at Spartan Stadium. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

It won’t be a marquee matchup like last season’s home-opener when Oregon came to town for a top-10 matchup, but it’s a real game, all the same. That, alone, has the Spartans motivated.

“I’m sick of going against the same guys every day,” fifth-year senior center Kodi Kieler said.

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That’s true for most of the players, but the reality is Michigan State is facing an FCS team that won just four games last season. After that it’s an oddly timed bye in the second week before a trip to Notre Dame.
Focusing on the task at hand Friday will be as challenging as the opponent itself, though it’s something the Spartans have done well with over the last few years.

“The only thing that (stinks) about the second-week bye is that it’s the second week,” Kieler said. “I’m not too happy about that but it’s just each week I feel like we’ve been really good at that, just looking at that opponent and not looking past that.

“The only focus right now is on Furman, which is the next opponent.”

That opponent comes to town for the first time as the teams have never met. But the Paladins do offer a similar look as many of their defensive schemes are similar to the Spartans.

While Furman struggled last season, including in a 42-3 loss at Virginia Tech, it did pick up a win over an FBS team by beating Central Florida, 16-15. Those games have drawn the attention of the Spartans, who insist the fact they play Notre Dame in two weeks is far from their thoughts.

“First thing we'll do is compete versus Furman and they will come in here and play up,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “There's no question about that. That's natural. They did that last year against Virginia Tech. I was very impressed on how they handled that football game, especially early in the game. So that's the No. 1 focus and then the second thing becomes, as we move through the process … we'll figure out who we are going to play and get ready for Notre Dame.

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“But we have a week in between there, so it's a little bit abnormal a little bit in terms of what we're going through there but I think it can help us as we move it forward.”

In the meantime, the Spartans are ready to get the season rolling and forget about the last game, one where Michigan State had its issues on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, there are plenty of new faces, but the quarterback — Tyler O’Connor — enters his fifth year in the program and he’s got plenty of talent surrounding him. On defense, there are some changes up front, but the defense feels it’s in position to be even better this season.

Now it’s about bringing a refreshed attitude, one that has completely put last season’s loss to Alabama in the rearview mirror.

“Take this chip on our shoulder that we have and let's have some fun,” fifth-year senior safety Demetrious Cox said “Let's come out here and play with some swag, let's be dominant. Not to knock how last season kind of went, but we did not blow certain teams out and play as well as we should have at times and I really want to emphasize on showing our domination.”

That should begin tonight in a game the Spartans hope sets the tone for the entire season.

The offseason work is done, the 2016 season is here.

“This is why we do what we do, for this time of the year,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “Our whole offseason with the winter conditioning, the spring ball and summer ball and all that kind of stuff. This is why we do it, for this time of the year. So everybody is excited about it.”