MSU takes back-to-basics approach to shake 4-game skid
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio was walking through the Skandalaris Center on Monday, the weight of a four-game losing streak heavy on his mind.
Deciding on a starting quarterback, wondering about offensive game plans and trying to discover a pass rush that has been on hiatus all season certainly were swimming through the head of the Spartans coach. With two wins halfway through the season, that sort of reflection is expected for a team that has seen unprecedented success the past six seasons.
But it was during that moment, when Dantonio was walking down a hallway lined with bowl jerseys from the past nine years and uniforms of players from those teams that are playing in the NFL, things started becoming clear.
Those framed mementos were a reminder of how far the program has come during his time at the helm — once an also-ran in the Big Ten, Michigan State has become a perennial contender in the conference and beyond.
“I think the most important thing to recognize is that wherever we’re going, is to try to get back to that point, continue to compete, continue to build into the players in terms of what we’re trying to do, concentrate on fundamentals, get our younger players ready to go, along with our older players,” Dantonio said. “You sort of return to what allows you to get to these places in the first place, which has always been toughness, effort and knowledge of what we have to do.
“We’ll build on that, maintain our focus.”
It’s all been lacking the first six weeks, and that admission alone can be hard for a team that has won two Big Ten titles in three seasons, a couple bowls, and appeared in the College Football Playoffs.
But it can be a detriment, too, if not guarded against. For the Spartans, it’s taken a tough stretch to act as a bit of a reminder.
“I think we got comfortable,” junior safety Montae Nicholson said. “That has to stop. As a team, we have to remember what got us the success that we’ve had and we’ve got to get back to that and keep working.”
Heading into Saturday’s game at Maryland, that means simple things like tackling on defense and blocking on offense.
“You gotta be able to come out here and practice it,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “You gotta practice your intensity, you gotta practice running to the ball, whether it’s seven-on-seven or it’s a team, period. Those are things you do practice to be good at and we focused on that today.”
The hope for Michigan State is that it leads to better tackling from a defense that allowed 54 points last week, the most ever under Dantonio. And on offense, it’s figuring out a way to run the ball after managing 51 yards against Northwestern.
It’s something the offensive line has had trouble doing all season, and there are no elaborate fixes.
“We’ve been called out and challenged pretty much every week,” junior guard/center Brian Allen said. “We’ve talked so much we gotta go out and do it, and until that happens we’ve got to keep working.”
So the basics will be focused on this week as well as the attention to detail. It’s what Michigan State’s players have grown accustomed to doing but suddenly have taken for granted.
“It’s frustrating because it really does snowball,” Bullough said. “After the Wisconsin game the last few have gone the other way. So to get that back will be tough but it would be huge for our season. We think if we can get a win and get things rolling the other way we can turn this thing around.”
That includes getting six wins and reaching a bowl, but it’s hardly what the Spartans are limiting themselves to.
“Going up to Maryland is the turning point we need in the second half,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “Everyone believes we have to go 6-0. Everyone in this building, in this bubble, knows that we can do that.”
It would be an impressive turnaround to say the least, especially considering the schedule remaining. But if the Spartans are to pull it off, it won’t come with flash and sizzle.
“At this point in time we’re just going to become a team that’s going to scrap,” Dantonio said. “That’s my intent. Let’s get on with that first. So we’ll be all in.”
Michigan State at Maryland
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Maryland Stadium, College Park, Maryland
Line: Michigan State by 2½
Records: Michigan State 2-4 (0-3 Big Ten), Maryland 4-2 (1-2)
Series: Michigan State leads 6-1 (MSU 24-7, Nov. 14, 2015)