Spartans look to their youth for bounce-back after loss

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State can take some solace in the fact it’s been here before.

In fact, it was just last season the Spartans entered their third game of the season unbeaten only to be beaten handily by Wisconsin, the first of seven straight defeats that derailed the 2016 season.

One year later, here are the Spartans. Again.

After two nonconference wins over schools from the Mid-American Conference, Michigan State shot itself in the foot from start to finish on Saturday in a 38-18 loss at home to Notre Dame.

The same 2-1 record shows up next the Spartans name as it did a season ago. The key now is showing some resiliency heading into Big Ten play, proving there have been lessons learned over the past 12 months.

“Last year, early on, everybody knows it spiraled down,” senior center Brian Allen said after the loss to the Fighting Irish. “We’ve got to keep our young guys up, keep them encouraged. I thought a lot of young guys, for really being their first true test in a big environment, played well. Defensively we played well, I thought. The D-line made a lot of plays and it was exciting to see against a good offensive line.

Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Notre Dame

“The loss sucks but you take good stuff from it to gain confidence and guys like Luke (Campbell), guys like Cole (Chewins), (Tyler) Higby — our O-line, they’re still freshmen and sophomore. They were in there playing with guys that have been at Notre Dame for some time, so it was encouraging to see.”

Seeing the young players take strides on the field is important, especially considering the Spartans are counting so heavily on players short on experience.

Twelve true freshmen have now played after safety Dominique Long and walk-on receiver Andre Welch saw action on special teams against Notre Dame. Add in the fact there are 53 players on the roster that are freshmen or redshirt freshmen and the Spartans are young — really young.

However, coach Mark Dantonio thinks that helps in bouncing back.

“First of all, our team is a resilient group of people,” Dantonio said during his weekly teleconference on Sunday night. “We are young and usually youth brings that resiliency with it. We’re gonna improve and certain guys are going to improve every single game they have an opportunity. Kevin Jarvis, a true freshman. Jordan Reid, a true freshman. Both played well and I think one got 30-plus snaps and the other got 20-some snaps. They’re young players — offensive linemen — but they held their own in there and they looked athletic.

“I do think we’ll be fine in that area. I think we’ll continue to play and I thought we continued to play and compete throughout the football game.”

As for the latest freshmen to see the field, Long was expected after Dantonio talked during the bye week about playing the 6-foot-2 safety from Westerville, Ohio.

Welch, however, was more of a surprise in the return game, though he could get more work.

“We put him in there because he’s done some things in practice that have been electrifying,” Dantonio said. “We’ve worked him a little bit, and I thought, ‘Hey, let’s see. Let’s find out.’ So, there may be an opportunity for him to play more, and we’re going to find out about that, because he can go. So, we’ll find out. We’ll see how he does in practice, but we wanted to give him an opportunity.”

Heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Iowa, it will do so relatively healthy. Dantonio said there were no long-term injuries that came from the Notre Dame game and sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie was simply dealing with cramps when he was in and out of the game in the second half.

And with its full complement of players, the focus for Michigan State this week will be eliminating the mistakes that put them behind. It’s life with young players, but Dantonio knows that excuse won’t fly.

“We’re young, so the expectation is, let’s get ready to go and compete,” Dantonio said. “Nobody feels worse than our players. Nobody. Not myself or anybody. Everybody feels badly. I’m not going to play the blame game or anything like that.

“We just simply have to eliminate the mistakes that we can eliminate. It’s tough enough to win football games against a good opponent — and Notre Dame is a good opponent — when you’re doing everything right. So, you have to eliminate the situations where all of a sudden you’re playing from behind because of a turnover or such.”