New Year Brings Great Promise for Spartans in 2018
Spartans set to return 19 starters on offense and defense.
As Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio looked around the field at SDCCU Stadium after the No. 16 Spartans’ dominating 42-17 Holiday Bowl victory over No. 18 Washington State, fresh from getting doused with Gatorade and still pulling ice cubes out of his pockets, he was surrounded by so many of the people who helped him reach the 100-win total for his coaching career in East Lansing.
MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis, who helped hire Dantonio from Cincinnati in November 2006 and had a vision that Coach D could be the one to lead the Spartans into a championship program.
Former players, who built the Spartan program into what it is today, including honorary captain, California native – and Rose Bowl and Big Ten Champion, Fou Fonoti.
His wife, Becky, daughters, Kristen and Lauren, and other close friends and staff that have shared this journey to a century mark on a daily basis since it began 11 seasons ago.
Perhaps more importantly for the Spartans moving forward into 2018, he was encompassed by nearly 100 players in uniform that just won 10 games in a season for only the eighth time in program history and will be coming back next fall, gearing up for another Big Ten Championship run.
As Dantonio was congratulating his players at midfield, holding up both hands to symbolize 10 victories, junior running back LJ Scott, who just ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns against the Cougars, announced in a post-game interview with FOX Sports’ reporter Jenny Taft that he was coming back for his senior season. Which was right after sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke, the Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP, told Taft that “we’re going to keep growing and we’re going to keep working. All of these guys are going to get older and gain more experience. We’ll be coming for it all next year, that’s for sure.”
But before looking ahead, the Spartans celebrated the present moment, running to the band to sing “Victory for MSU,” posing for photos on the field and congratulating each other on capping the greatest single-season turnaround in school history.
After Lewerke and Frey were presented with the Offensive and Defensive MVP trophies, it was time for Dantonio’s turn at the on-field podium.
“First of all, our seniors, they showed us the way,” he told the thousands of Spartan fans in attendance and also those watching on national television. “They’ve been there. They’ve been to the playoff, won a Big Ten Championship. And we had an infusion of young players. They won big games, played in big moments. (If you were to say) 10 wins at the beginning of the season, it would’ve been great – we made it a reality.”
Following his comments to the Spartan faithful, Dantonio was first given a white cake from the Holiday Bowl with “100” written in green frosting, then held up the Holiday Bowl trophy, his school-record fifth bowl win, with his players exulting alongside him on stage.
“I just want to thank all of the players from these past 11 years that have played for the Spartans,” he said in closing.
It was a slow, but celebratory, stroll back to the locker room in the bowels of SDCCU Stadium, as the team soaked up every ounce of an incredible season.
One of those taking his time was Frey. With his trademark eye-black smothered across his face, he walked off the field for the last time as a Spartan, smiling nonstop as those ever-intense eyes basked in the spotlight one more time wearing the green No. 23 jersey.
“It’s an honor,” said Frey, who had a fumble recovery and six tackles in shutting down the high-octane Washington State passing offense. “I couldn’t have done it without the guys in the locker room. I told Joe Bachie I learned a lot from him. He pushed me to be a better player and person and it’s be been an honor playing with all these guys. I got back to the locker room and I was talking to (fellow senior linebacker) Shane Jones, and I don’t want to take this jersey off. I’m going to take as much time as I can in my jersey.”
But it wasn’t just the players. After countless hugs on the field, Dantonio made his way around the end zone, high-fiving Spartan fans, taking pictures, and thanking them for making the trip to San Diego, all while getting cheered every step along the way.
As everyone inched their way to the exit, one could almost feel the promise of 2018 walking up that tunnel while celebrating one last win for 2017. And celebrate they did.
In the locker room, Dantonio gave an emotional speech after being presented a game ball commemorating his 100th win, although he possibly was even more excited for the 10-win campaign his current team just achieved.
“The 10 wins belong to everyone in here personally,” he said. “You got up off the mat, worked hard, and made this season possible.”
The Spartans then sang a joyous rendition of the fight song and danced as a team while the Holiday Bowl trophy was being passed around for photos.
Needing to change out of his Gatorade-drenched pullover and into a Spartan hoodie, Dantonio finally had a chance to reflect on the impressive win while sharing the press conference stage with Lewerke, Frey and junior wide receiver Felton Davis, who just played catch with Lewerke in the San Diego night to the tune of four receptions and 118 yards, including a career-long 49-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“I just want to congratulate our football team and our coaching staff on this win, this program win,” opened Dantonio. “Program win in every respect. Especially the fact that it’s our 10th win this season which is what we came out here for. We came out here on sort of a mission and our players did an outstanding job.
“I think the biggest thing you learn as a young person or as a coach or anybody, is to get up after you’ve been knocked down. Whether you’re in a corporation or whether you’re in a sport, or whether you’re a coach, the ability to stand up and continue to persevere when things don’t look so well for you. Our football team did that.”
“I wouldn’t choose any other coach to play for in the nation,” remarked Lewerke to FOX Sports in his post-game interview. “To get our 10th win of the season and for him to get his 100th win, it’s no better feeling for me, and I’m sure he feels the same way too.”
The Spartans entered preseason camp in late July unranked and one of the youngest teams in the nation. They pulled out of the SDCCU Stadium tunnel in late December poised to finish in the top 15 with their fifth bowl win this decade and one of eight teams in the 121-year history of the storied program to win at least 10 games in a season. But the story for a majority of these players is not finished.
“I think we have a good football team coming back,” said Dantonio, as 19 starters on offense and defense are set to return in 2018. “I think we have an outstanding recruiting class coming. So I think we will have guys that can help in that area on this football team.
“I think we’re hungry. I think we’re humble. We will work hard and believe in each other; belief is such a big part of it. We have confidence in each other. We will play hard and we will play tough.
“I would like to say we’re back, but 2018 is around the corner…So you can’t say that because you’ve got to start proving yourself all over again. But this was as great of a football season that I have had as a coach because of where we came from and what we were able to accomplish.”
There’s no doubt Dantonio is excited about the potential for this team. Most coaches feel that way heading into the New Year. But take it from someone who has seen it all during his career at Michigan State.
“The future is bright for this team,” claimed Frey, who helped the senior class win 36 games, including two bowl wins, a Big Ten Championship, and a berth in the College Football Playoff. “I’m excited to continue watching this team grow because we have so many young guys that have the ability to be great and with the work ethic I know they have, that they showed in the offseason. The sky is the limit for everybody on this team.”
And it all begins again with conditioning sessions just a few weeks away for a team with championship aspirations in 2018.