Sept. 22, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Michigan State's 31-13 loss at Notre Dame had that "will-they-ever-win-again?" look to it. Everything that went wrong greatly overshadowed whatever went right.
Take heart Spartans fans. That question has been asked numerous times throughout program history, and the answer has always been the same, although to varying degrees.
Running back Edwin Baker, who rushed for 26 yards on 10 carries against the Fighting Irish, was quick to point out that just last season MSU lost at Iowa, 37-6, but that defeat didn't prevent the Spartans from winning a share of the Big Ten Championship.
"One game does not dictate our season," said Baker, who had 21 yards on nine carries against the Hawkeyes. "We weren't playing (against Notre Dame) the way we're supposed to play - very physical and getting down to the nitty gritty. This week, that's our main mind-set.
"That game didn't shake us up at all. We're still upbeat and have a lot of hope and expectations. We had this same situation last year. After Iowa, we had to come back and establish ourselves. I feel that was our defining moment - how we came back and didn't get down on ourselves. We have to do the same thing this week. We have to come back define ourselves and put ourselves back on the map."
A tendency to grossly overreact to situations is endemic of sports, and football in particular. And with a week between games, a sinking - or for that matter a euphoric - feeling can escalate to the point of producing premature and irrational conclusions.
For example, a 50-10 season-opening loss to Nebraska in 1995 didn't prevent MSU from finishing with a 6-4-1 regular-season record and playing in a bowl.
Perhaps the best argument against jumping to conclusions came in 1988 when the Spartans got off to a 0-4-1 start and were virtually ruled out of postseason consideration by various media. Michigan State won its last six Big Ten games to finish second, and a defiant coach George Perles had "0-4-1" inscribed on the Spartans' Gator Bowl rings.
Conversely, the 2005 MSU team followed a giddy 4-0 start with a deflating 1-6 finish.
Adversity is the crucible that separates the good teams from the also-rans and the great teams from the good ones.
With an offensive line burdened with injuries and inexperience, it's clear that many defining moments lie ahead, beginning with Saturday's game against Central Michigan.
Starting right tackle Skyler Burkland underwent season-ending surgery on his broken ankle and Blake Treadwell, who started the first three games at center, and back-up tackle Jared McGaha are possibly out for at least two weeks with sprained knees.
Will the Spartans wilt under the heat or be tempered by it?
"That's our challenge," said offensive coordinator Dan Roushar. "At the end of the day, this game is still about blocking people. We've got to block 'em better, and we have to run the football better and I have to call it better. We'll have another opportunity to establish ourselves this Saturday."
Roushar hasn't seen any evidence of the team adopting a sky-is-falling attitude.
"Our leadership comes from our players and certainly our coaching staff," he said. "There's a lot of football to be played. We lost one game and it will be interesting to see how we come back. We're a competitive group and I would be disappointed if we didn't come out and play very hard and play well."
As discouraging as the loss to Notre Dame was, it will serve a purpose if it reminds the Spartans to take nothing for granted and to always play with a sense of urgency.
"I treat every game like it's my last because based on certain situations I've been through in my life and things that I've seen, you never know what you're going to be able to do the next day," said defensive end William Gholston. "So, you always have to be the best you can be. We still can win the championship. We still got a chance to get down to Indianapolis on Dec. 3rd, and that's really one of our goals we've got to meet.
"We just have to take this situation and learn from it. Our confidence hasn't changed. We can't really dwell on the past because we have to get to our future. If you get hit in the mouth, you're not just going to fold up. You're going to hit back."
Red-shirt freshman Travis Jackson will get his first career start against the Chippewas while junior college-transfer Fou Fonoti has moved back to right tackle after getting experience on the left side. Sophomore Henry Conway will back up Fonoti and Micajah Reynolds, who had been playing on defense, has returned to offense and is backing up left tackle Dan France.
"It's one game," said fifth-year senior left guard Joel Foreman. "We're not panicking. We understand we have things we need to address and we are addressing them and we're getting better. It's a learning experience and we can use it as a positive thing.
"We're regrouping and we're refocusing."
Winning in spite of what head coach Mark Dantonio called "the tough times" is a challenge that if met can result in satisfying rewards. The Spartans don't have to look any further than Notre Dame, which ended the frustration of a 0-2 start and silenced its national critics with a convincing victory.
"That's what really characterizes you and makes an impression on our young people," Dantonio said. "Our goals are all in front of us and that's the thing our players need to understand (as) we start conference play next week.
"We're down some quality offensive linemen, but we still maintain we expect (the replacements) to succeed. No alibis, is what I'm saying. You deal with adversity and the problems you have... and you try to fix them. But you stay the course.
"People have been saying a lot of good things about Michigan State for six, seven months. Now you can dig in and figure out who you are, and that's a positive. Sometimes we all need that."