'We'll fix it': MSU looks ahead as sad season draws to close

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

Maybe a few years down the road, Michigan State will look back at 2016 and see that it was necessary in the evolution of the program.

Much like the struggles of 2012 led to a three-year run that included 36 wins, two Big Ten championships and a College Football Playoff berth, the misery that has been the 2016 season could result in similar success down the road.

At least that’s what Michigan state is hoping as it prepares for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff at No. 8 Penn State, the final game of the regular season.

There will be no championship this time, no bowl to prepare for. It’s not at all where Michigan State expected to be at this point after reaching a bowl in each of the previous nine seasons under Dantonio. Even 2012 ended with a .500 record in the regular season and a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings bowl.

But this season has been off from late September right through to this week.

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“It’s different, there is no question about that,” Dantonio said on Tuesday. “It’s not something that we have had to go through, but it’s something maybe that this program needs right now. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, our personnel, everything about us, and we’ll work through all the different parameters of it. Recruiting starts on Monday, actually Sunday, so we have two weeks out in that capacity.

“Then we’ve got some time to sort of sit back and start to look at what happened. So we will trace those things and, you know, go from there. But we’ll fix it.”

It hasn’t made things any easier for the players going through it, especially those that have been around for the successes and will be back next season to turn it around.

One of those players is junior linebacker Chris Frey, who leads the team with 90 tackles. Getting up each week when you know your goals already have been dashed has been a challenge.

“I think no matter what kind of program you’re in it’s tough to have a season like this, no matter if you have one like this often or not so often,” Frey said. “It’s tough to go into the season thinking you’ll do great.

“Our motto going into the season was ‘Back2back.’ We wanted to be back-to-back Big Ten champs and we definitely fell way short of that and it’s hard to know that. Even when you know you can’t reach your goals you have to go into the next week thinking we need a win still and have to set new goals and set eyes on the future.”

There have been signs the future could be bright.

In the last two weeks alone, Michigan State got its first Big Ten win and then came a point from upsetting No. 2 Ohio State. That two-game stretch came a couple weeks after pushing No. 3 Michigan to the limit.

“I think collectively as a football team our last two weeks may have been our best two weeks, maybe the last four,” Dantonio said. “I don’t know, up and down a little bit in the Illinois game, I don’t know, but I think there has been great improvement by our young players, and that’s usually the case, because I think as a young player the learning curve is maybe more drastic. You’re going to learn faster. I think there is more to learn, obviously, so you have more to gain, more room to grow.”

And now Michigan State turns its focus to finishing strong and setting the young players in the right direction heading into the offseason. To get one last win, the Spartans will have to knock off the No. 8 team in the nation, their fourth game against a top-10 team this season.

“It would be huge,” junior safety Montae Nicholson said. “Just trying to get some momentum going into next year and realize we are better than our record says. I still do believe that. We have probably some of the best talent across the nation — it’s just we haven’t been able put it together this season. To get a ‘W’ would just carry over into winter conditioning ... and next season.”