Oct. 3, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
But since Michigan State's 17-16 defeat to Ohio State left them with no choice in the matter, their job is to guide the Spartans out of troubled waters just as team leaders have done before them.
Both know what needs to be done.
"Obviously, we'd rather have the `W' than a test (of character)," said Bullough, the junior middle linebacker and co-captain. "I don't think you need to have a loss to turn your season, but if they come, you need to spin it into a positive and build off it, especially a tight game like that."
McDonald, a low-keyed force who commands respect as an elder statesman on the offensive line, said he'll try to provide the inspirational leadership previously imparted by center Travis Jackson and right tackle Fou Fonoti, who have been lost to injury.
Bullough will continue his natural straightforward, no-nonsense approach to affect the breakthrough both can feel coming.
The first order of business is to make sure the Spartans are in the same frame of mind going into Saturday's game at Indiana as they were in each of the last two seasons after absorbing what appeared at the time to be - at least to those on the outside looking in - devastating losses at Iowa and at Nebraska.
In 2010, MSU bounced back from the so-called catastrophic 37-6 defeat against the Hawkeyes to win the last three games and earn a share of the Big Ten title. And last year, the situation looked bleak after the Spartans absorbed a crushing 24-3 setback at the hands of the Cornhuskers. They responded with four-consecutive victories to vault into the inaugural league title game.
The dynamics are somewhat different this season because of the impact youth and inexperience have had on key positions, most notably in the passing game. And, unlike the beat-downs at Iowa and Nebraska, the Spartans came out of the game against the Buckeyes with something to build on in terms of effort and confidence.
"The biggest thing coming from a loss is you have to take the positives out of it," said McDonald, the fifth-year senior right guard. "Against Ohio State, we played with effort in a tough game. It didn't go our way, but if you watch the film, it was just little things here and one play there.
"We're not in crisis mode. All the goals that we want to achieve are still in front of us. We just need to realize you we can't make little mistakes and we have to come together as a team. I think we're right there - we are so close."
One other difference is that instead of regaining its bearings at home, as the past two MSU teams did with recovery wins against Minnesota, the Spartans will have to right the ship in hostile territory.
"We just have to minimize those mistakes and learn from them going into Indiana," McDonald said. "The team has to realize that if we win on the road, we'll be fine and we'll come together. People on the outside are questioning our passing game, but we had some great plays against Ohio State.
"That just shows we can be balanced and have a great running game and a great passing game. We just have to put them together."
Nevertheless, Michigan State's continuity was disrupted when Fonoti sustained a foot injury in practice the week of the Notre Dame game and it was jarred even more when Jackson suffered a season-ending leg injury against Ohio State.
Others have stepped in to fill their positions, but McDonald is taking it upon himself to be a more vocal presence in the absence of Fonoti and Jackson's big personalities.
"I've been leading the offensive line since (former left guard) Joel Foreman left (after the '11 season," McDonald said. "The biggest thing for me is transferring it to the offense as a whole when we do team periods. I've got to be more encouraging to the skill position players or Andrew (Maxwell, the starting quarterback).
"I've got to focus on us staying together and team unity. I need to step up as a team leader."
Head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff have leaned on Bullough to lead Spartans from the day he arrived on campus, starting with his freshman teammates two seasons ago, and now as a junior co-captain.
Not one to engage in foolhardy rhetoric, Bullough is certain the Spartans are the team they thought they would be coming into the season.
"I think we gained a lot against Ohio State," he said. "I thought we moved forward as a team as far as pass-efficiency, playing hard and making plays when they needed to made are concerned. I thought we did some good things and there were some positives after going back and watching the film.
"We're playing good defense, good things are happening on offense, things are falling into place. Obviously, we didn't get the win but it was by one point and there were inches and plays all over the place where we could have made that up. We're still heading in the right direction."
Resilience, as much as anything, has been the trademark of Dantonio's program. The Spartans have responded to every loss in each of the last two seasons with a win, haven't had a losing streak since 2009 and, starting with '08, have avoided back-to-back defeats in three of previous four seasons.
"I would expect our football team will make a statement when we come to play," Dantonio said. "That's how we've done things here.
"When you have a football program that has as much (of a) following as we do (and) the people care as much as they do, they're going to get jubilant when you're 2-0 and ranked No. 9 or 10. If you lost two (games), you're 3-2, and even if you lost by one point, they're going to say the sky is falling.
"Neither of the two is true. So, we'll just push through it. We've done that before. Sometimes tough times require tough people."