Oct. 24, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's goal are still in front of it. There aren't as many and they aren't as grandiose as they were four losses ago, but they are no less motivational.
And in some ways, the Spartans are as driven as ever to validate the estimation that made them the 10th-ranked team in the nation after the first two games. They are still the only Big Ten team with a victory over an opponent - No. 21 Boise State - currently ranked in the Top 25.
With four games remaining, MSU (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) may have shelved aspirations of returning to the conference championship game and playing in the Rose Bowl until next season, but there is no shortage of incentives.
The Spartans have a streak of five bowl trips to protect and a chance to win back-to-back postseason games for the first time since 1989-90 (Aloha and John Hancock Bowls). A third consecutive 11-win record may be out of the question, but an impressive win total is still within reach.
There is also the matter of settling a score against Wisconsin, which spoiled MSU's Rose Bowl ambitions in last season's inaugural league title game, on Saturday in Madison.
"The process, first of all, is we truly have to take it one week at a time," said running back Le'Veon Bell, who is 16 yards away from his first career 1,000-yard rushing season. "We just want to make sure we want to win this week, and if we win this week, we want to make sure we win the next week and continue on.
"You never know what's going to happen in a Big Ten season. Teams can lose to anybody nowadays, so we want to make sure we come out on top the rest of our games and see what happens at the end of the season."
At this stage, under these circumstances, the Spartans have no choice but to don blinders and concentrate on winning one down at a time.
The Michigan State men's basketball team's 15 NCAA Tournament appearances in a row is one of the most envied streaks in the nation, but Tom Izzo's Spartans came precariously close to seeing it snapped in 2010-11 and 2005-06.
Mark Dantonio's football Spartans are in a similar survive-and-advance state of mind.
"We're going to make sure we get into a bowl," Bell said. "At this point, it really doesn't matter what bowl. If we play in a bowl game, we'll get a pretty good team and then we'll want to win that. We just want to keep getting better and move on.
"We just need to get over those humps. Things really haven't fallen our way, but we've got four games left and we can always turn it around and get better. Everyone's still positive."
Michigan State's greatest area for growth is on offense, which is still trying to get its footing because of an injury-riddled line that at times during last week's two-point loss at Michigan had just one returning starter - right guard Chris McDonald - from the 2011 group on the field. The Spartans are 11th in the Big Ten in scoring and in touchdowns. With 16 six-pointers, MSU is on pace to finish with 21 fewer TDs than it did last season with 47.
Would Michigan State have been able to come up with seven more total points in the 17-16 loss to Ohio State, the 19-16 overtime defeat against Iowa and the 12-10 loss at Michigan with healthy Fou Fonoti at right tackle, center Travis Jackson at center and Dion Sims at tight end in all three games?
Since the Spartans can't un-lose those games no matter how many times they plug in different scenarios, the only thing they can do is build on the structure they have in place.
"We have to realize that the season's not over," said quarterback Andrew Maxwell. "We have four regular-season games left. We have an opportunity to really gain some momentum going into the last little bit of the season here.
"I think what's important to communicate for the young players is we need to do it for the seniors, the older guys, the guys who have been the nucleus of our back-to-back 11-win seasons the last two years, the guys who helped us get here. If we can look at this season, look at our team right now and the adversity we are going through, and grow together as a unit, as a family, get stronger and build from it, I think that's going to build more character than anything would."
The presumption that the Spartans must be in some horrid, dismal, depressing place as a team being suffocated by its frustration isn't accurate.
"We'll be back, we'll be ready, we're still having fun and we're still playing football," said middle linebacker Max Bullough. "You need to play well during the season to get to a bowl game, and obviously, that's our first goal now, and we're still set up to go to a great bowl.
"We have a very good football team. We've lost three games in the Big Ten by six points total. I think good things are ahead for us."
Avenging last season's 42-39 defeat to the Badgers in the championship game, in which MSU lost the lead and a chance to come back in the final 3:45, would be a good place to start. It's not that the pressure is any less on the Spartans to win now that certain goals are unattainable, but there are some advantages to being wounded and hurting.
"I think (other) teams look at a team that's 4-4 and they might doubt their ability or talent or how good they are," said Bullough. "Saying we're so close to being 7-1, I think that can allow us to be dangerous to teams that might look at us from that viewpoint."
If anything, the Spartans are anxious to vent their frustrations against a team like Wisconsin.
"We've always been hungry," said defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White, "but this definitely makes us even hungrier just to show that we're still a great team and we're still playing for each other and with each other."
Playing the role of the spoiler also has some benefits. Wisconsin, which went to the Rose Bowl the last two season's at MSU's expense, has won 21-straight games in Camp Randall Stadium. Its 12-game home conference win streak is second in the nation only to Northern Illinois and it has won 40 consecutive home games against unranked opponents.
"That's the challenge for us," said Sims, adding he'll be back in the lineup and close to full strength against the Badgers. "I'm still a little salty about the loss we took from them last year in Indianapolis, and all the other guys are, too.
"We'll come to play with a chip on our shoulder, we'll play our game and the results will show that. Especially with this game and the situation that happened last year, with them going to the Rose Bowl and us not being able to make it, I think we remember that feeling and will play them tough."