East Lansing — The last time Michigan State had a season it wasn’t expecting, it took a simple phrase into the following year as it looked to bounce back.
That was in 2013. The Spartans had just finished a 6-6 regular season before which many had expected them to contend in the Legends Division of the Big Ten. Instead the close losses mounted and Michigan State had to win the season finale to reach a bowl game.
Some momentum was gained with a win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and when the Spartans convened the next August, coach Mark Dantonio had a phrase he emphasized with his team — find the inches.
It was a simple approach, but for a team that lost five games by 13 points the previous season it made sense. Essentially, it meant the little things are the difference between winning and losing. Michigan State found those inches in 2013, winning the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl.
Now, coming off the team’s worst season under Dantonio, that phrase is popping up again and again.
“I thought our football team just, we found the inches,” Dantonio said in his Sunday teleconference. “And I talk all the time about finding inches to our players and the difference between this and that or whatever. And we found them on the football field. We were able to gut it out and win a big football game.”
John Niyo and Matt Charboneau break down Michigan State's victory on Indiana.
That win, of course, was the 17-9 victory over Indiana on Saturday, one that made No. 16 Michigan State bowl-eligible and kept it unbeaten in the Big Ten.
And now, with the reality that Michigan State will be playing meaningful games in the final month of the season — something many didn’t think would happen this year — it’s the same mantra for a young football team.
“That’s exciting for us to be bowl-eligible at 6-1,” Dantonio said. “We’re 4-0 in the conference. All those things are very exciting. But I think the other message of last night’s football game is that we’re inches away. We’re inches away from not being 6-1, and we have to take care of the small things. Big things will follow.”
That’s the beauty of that phrase. Find those inches and the wins come, the chance to play for championships after that. Fail to find them and you’re looking at frustration.
The Spartans have experienced plenty of that, but now they’re seeing the positive side of it, what happens when you convert big third downs with a late lead, or what happens when you overcome a third-and-19 in the fourth quarter while trailing by six.
It was on full display Saturday against an Indiana team that is far better defensively than it has been in years and had Michigan State on its heels. But that’s when the Spartans found the inches. They found them when Brian Lewerke hit Hunter Rison for a 4-yard gain on fourth-and-3, extending a drive that ended with what proved to be the winning touchdown. They found them later in the fourth quarter when Lewerke threaded a pass to Cody White for a 32-yard gain on third-and-9.
The defense found those inches all game, holding Indiana to three field goals, one when Michigan State fumbled the ball at its own 15 and later in the game when the Hoosiers were first-and-10 from the MSU 11.
The young lineup is figuring it out quickly, even Lewerke, the sophomore who didn’t play well until the final couple of drives when he was 5-for-7.
“We have a belief system in our players, and our guys can make plays,” Dantonio said. “And I’ve said it all along, usually probably in crunch time (Lewerke) might be at his best due to just his sort of demeanor. He’s gaining experience and knowledge as we go. There’s no question he made some decisions on the field that probably he would like to have back, but that probably could be said for almost everybody out there, including coaches coaching.”
But those poor decisions aren’t leading to frustrating losses like they have in the past and it’s put Michigan State in a position to contend, to make games next month against Penn State and Ohio State about much more than measuring up.
Michigan State needs one more win against Northwestern on Saturday to complete its latest phase — Dantonio broke it up in a five-game stretch that included three road games. Then, the focus will be on the finish and where the Spartans stand in the East Division race.
“We’re just going to focus on the task at hand right now,” Dantonio said, “and then we’ll worry about what happens in November when November comes.”
And if they keep finding those inches, what happens in November could get pretty interesting.
Michigan State at Northwestern
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
Records: Michigan State is 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten; Northwestern is 4-3, 2-2
Line: Northwestern by 1