Long layoff has Michigan State itching to compete
East Lansing — By the time Michigan State takes the field on Saturday to host Bowling Green in the season-opener, it will have been just more than nine months since it has played a football game.
That nine months, believe it or not, has felt much longer.
It’s what happens when a program that had become accustomed to competing for Big Ten championships and playing in high-profile bowl games plummets to a 3-9 and record and finds itself home for the holidays.
No conference title game. No bowl practices. No week somewhere warm.
The only thing Michigan State had to look forward to after the loss at Penn State on Nov. 26 of last year was winter workouts then spring practice.
Until now, that is. Now, following an offseason as difficult as anything that happened on the field, the Spartans are ready to play football.
“It feels like it’s been so long since we played and I’m excited,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “I feel like everyone is just ready to go. We’re kind of getting tired of going against ourselves all the time, just repping all our stuff. We want to see what happens when we get out on the field.”
They’ll get that chance at noon on Saturday, a date and time that has been circled for some time.
No, it’s not a marquee nonconference matchup to open the season and there might not be as many eyes on the TV sets as there have been in the past, but none of that matters to the Spartans.
“I don't really care who we play in the first game. It's good to have a first game,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “The timing is right. Our football team is right for it. The mentality of our football team is right. And that's mostly what I'm concerned about —our football team.”
It’s a football team that has heard all the prognostications. They’ve heard how it will be impossible to contend in the Big Ten East, arguably the toughest division in college football. Ohio State and Penn State are too good while Michigan has more talent, that’s been the narrative.
They’ve also been reminded of last season over and over. That can be the cold reality when a team goes 1-8 in the conference.
However, this Spartans team also believes the record doesn’t tell the whole story. They remember playing with Michigan most of the game last year, coming a failed two-point conversion from beating Ohio State and controlling the entire first half against Penn State.
“We had a tough year last year,” Dantonio said. “We had very high expectations coming in last year and we didn't deliver. … Last year, we could have won our last game, we could have beaten Ohio State, two-point play at the end of the game or two-minute drive. And we were up against Penn State, and those are two top-10 teams.
“We're not as far away as some believe. We're a lot closer. You have to make plays on the field and they've got to be Ws. That's reality.”
Making wins a reality once again has been the focus since the season ended nine months ago. The chemistry and attitude of the team have been different, they say, and that will show on Saturday.
It hasn’t been a simple process and, in fact, maybe Michigan State needed all nine months to prepare. What is clear is that things are different this week. Tuesday’s practice, in particular, was more intense than any to date.
“If you would have seen practice today you would have seen we had a few fights out there,” junior running back LJ Scott said with a smile. “I think we’re ready. Overall, we’re all ready to and we’ve got something to prove.”
Whether they prove things are headed back in the right direction will take more than just one week. It will take sustained success and the rapid development of plenty of young players.
But for now, with game No. 1 in their sights, the Spartans are glad they're back to playing football.
“Opening day. A lot of excitement. A lot of optimism,” Dantonio said. “(We’re a) young football team. You can say that about a lot of teams right now across this country. Opening day always brings that out. I think it's exciting for all of us. We're very, very ready to go, I guess you'd say. It's been a long time coming. We sat and waited for about nine months for this opportunity. So, we'll be ready.”