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MSU freshmen green but not alone in culpability

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
R.J. Shelton

East Lansing – It’s the old sports cliché – there’s no “I” in team.

That can apply to any sport, really, but in football it’s critical. Rarely will one person or a couple of players carry a team, especially if the rest of the team is struggling.

For Michigan State, a team that has won in recent seasons because of its outstanding chemistry, the “I” seems to be outweighing the team right now. It might not even be a conscious effort, but throughout its five-game losing streak, Michigan State has seen its share of individual gaffes. From an undisciplined penalty to a missed assignment, it’s all happened for the Spartans and it’s come from all experience levels. Freshmen and seniors alike have had their hand in the struggles of the last five weeks.

And with unbeaten Michigan coming to town on Saturday, getting each player – each position group – to start pulling its weight is long overdue.

“I think we definitely now more than ever have that chip on our shoulder, and we need to ante up,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We need all the guys on our team to make that next step and be those high-quality players that we've had here and those high-quality teams, and we just need the guys to come this week ready to practice. I'm sure our older guys will give the guys in their room a message about how much this means.”

If there’s any game that can get that message through it’s this one. The rivalry with Michigan has been at the core of Michigan State’s rise to prominence under coach Mark Dantonio, who has led the Spartans to seven win in the last eight meetings.

But while the Wolverines have been busy running roughshod over their competition this season, the Spartans have been mired in a bizarre slumber that they can’t seem to wake up from. It’s true Michigan State lost plenty from last season and is counting on quite a bit of inexperience to grow up quickly.

Dantonio on UM game: ‘Yeah, we can win’

However, Dantonio isn’t about to pin the team’s issues on those newcomers, especially the nine true freshmen that have already played this season.

“First of all, our young players are working harder than they've ever worked in their football life, period,” Dantonio said. “That's been started from the time they walked onto campus.

“There's a larger deal of responsibility with our young players when they play because there's more on their plate. They're transitioning, and remember, a lot of these guys, especially really young players, they were in high school last year playing against a different level of athlete in a different system, one in which they were experienced and well-versed in, their high school system. Now they're held to a higher level of responsibility, and that's natural.

“But we just need to play better collectively. Don't point the finger. Point the thumb, and get on with it, and that's what we're going to do, and we're going to be strong as we go.”

This can be the type of game those freshmen grow up quickly. Whether it’s redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke or true freshman receiver Donnie Corley or the secondary from the second half last week that included two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and two true freshmen – they are all being counted on to get things turned around.

The fact it comes against the No. 2 team in the nation is tough enough, but this game holds a bit more importance than most. It’s just the way it is, and the older players are planning to hammer that home to the youngsters.

Demetrious Cox

“For the seniors, for this state, for the Michigan State fans, you have got to come to play,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “I'm going to get my younger guys right in my room, and along with me and (tight end) Josiah (Price) are going to get our offensive unit ready to play. We just have to come together as one and do what we need to do to have a shot at winning.”

It’s far from just a freshman thing, however. Sure, as Dantonio said, it’s tougher for the young player to adjust; that’s why he’s always talked about seniors having their best years. So far, that’s not happening.

Shelton has been outstanding, but others have had plenty of moments when they haven’t played like seniors. Just last week Bullough was ejected after a targeting call – his third personal foul in the first quarter – and fifth-year senior safety Demetrious Cox blew a coverage to allow a touchdown.

It’s not the typical senior leadership the Spartans have enjoyed in the past, and the seniors understand that.

“I think that would help out a lot with everything we've got going on here, if all our seniors really start playing the best football of their career and really step it up a notch,” Price said, “because we aren't used to playing nine freshmen in a season. That's not a common theme at Michigan State.”

Added Bullough: “I think it's also important that our older guys need to start playing their best football, me included. I think that's extremely important as we move forward, and I think this week, we're really going to turn it around and get things moving the other way.”

Getting things moving in the right direction against Michigan would just be a bonus, and the Spartans say they are all on the same page with that.

“In the state of Michigan you either bleed green or you're with the school down the road, and it means so much to millions of people,” Bullough said. “Our guys need to understand that, and they need to play that way for the entire game.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau