Matt Charboneau and Lynn Henning break down Michigan State's win over Maryland. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Brian Allen let out a little chuckle Saturday night as he quickly contemplated a question following Michigan State’s 17-7 win over Maryland.
He and the Spartans had just slogged through another nasty night, running the ball effectively enough to get past the Terrapins and win for the eighth time this season. It put Michigan State in a position to close the regular season with nine wins should it come up with another victory next week at Rutgers.
And it was that number that was at the crux of the question — nine.
Allen was asked, if someone said to him before the season the Spartans would have a chance win nine games heading into the final week would he think they were crazy.
“Not that crazy, but I don’t think you guys would have been telling me that,” Allen said.
He’s right. Nobody was picking Michigan State to win nine games, and if you took an honest survey, plenty inside the program probably weren’t, either.
That’s not to say there wasn’t belief in the program that the Spartans would bounce back quickly from the 3-9 mess that was 2016 followed by an equally challenging offseason. But reaching a bowl game was more of a realistic goal, not still being in the hunt for the division in the final weeks.
But that’s where Michigan State was heading into Saturday. And while the division officially went to Ohio State by the end of the day, the victory over Maryland still gives the Spartans a chance to flip their record to 9-3, head to a bowl game somewhere warm and get a shot at winning 10 games.
That can only be defined as a success.
“We had a lot of confidence going into this season,” said Allen, who’s been a Big Ten champion and played in the College Football Playoff. “We had high expectations for ourselves. Every one we had we didn’t meet, necessarily, so you adjust and do the best you can now. But we knew we’d be able to have a good year this year and we knew we’d come together and win games like this and get the ball rolling again.
“So, we were excited and if someone was to say that to me, yeah, that’d be good.”
It has been good most of the season. Perfect? No, but considering where this program was at this time last year, it’s no less impressive.
Coach Mark Dantonio described his team as “workmanlike,” one that has ground out wins in a fashion that might not be exciting but has certainly been effective. And it has put the program back on a clear path to being a consistent contender in the Big Ten East.
“I think last year was not normal, it was something that a lot of things go into that,” Dantonio explained. “Just like there’s a lot of things that go into a Rose Bowl year, things got to go well. Then some years they don’t go as well. Sometimes you get injuries or you have situations. Last year we had three quarterbacks and every one of them got hurt. We lost games. Our linebackers were out, things of that nature.
“It takes a toll on you, I think, in terms of an emotional toll on you as well. When you win games, you win them close, that’s a positive. That’s an emotional positive, you always feel like you’re going to be able to get to win.”
The Spartans have started to get that feeling once again. It’s the same feeling they’ve had for the bulk of Dantonio’s tenure. It’s one that permeated the program as it won 36 games and two Big Ten titles from 2013-15.
It’s also one that disappeared last season and one many thought would take some time to get back. Most were wrong.
“Very proud of our football team because it’s a bounce-back year,” Dantonio said. “Usually when you have those types of years like that, there’s a lot of, I don’t know, there’s just a good feeling about it.”
That feeling won’t likely go away next week as Michigan State faces a Rutgers team that has been better this season but still has just two conference wins. The Spartans will need to continue to run the ball while rediscovering a passing game that got washed away against Maryland. And the young defense will need to keep making strides.
Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess. The Spartans are young and should be right back in the mix next season. Until then, they’re focused on completing an unexpected reversal.
“Now we are feeling good and next week we have a chance to flip the script and go from 3-9 to 9-3,” Allen said. “So it’s exciting.”