Spartans Confident Heading into Showdown at Ohio State
The winding road of a season can lead in many different directions, but you know landmarks when you see them.
And The Horseshoe in Columbus certainly stands out.
It's where the youthful Spartans (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) will find themselves on Saturday at high noon, in a battle for first place in the Big Ten East Division.
Back on the last day of July when Michigan State began preseason camp, there was a quiet confidence within the Duffy Daugherty Building about this year's potential. And it's only grown throughout the fall in what has been a remarkably tight-knit group finding a way to win close game after close game. It's a team that believes in each other.
"I think we are becoming a confident football team," said MSU head coach Mark Dantonio at his weekly press conference. "A lot of our young players now are more experienced players and they have some success and they have won on the field.
"So this is a step-by-step process with all players, especially young players, and I think they are coming into their own a little bit. You can see that with our quarterback and our wide receivers. You can see our wide receivers have grown just in the course of nine games.
"So we're playing better. I still don't think we played our best game yet. I don't think we've peaked yet, so we'll continue to try and do that as we go. But we're playing with a competitive edge, I would say."
Co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Jim Bollman, who has been coaching for more than four decades, has experienced that same feeling about the team this season.
"There's great comradery on the team," he remarked on Wednesday, while taking a short break from game planning against the Buckeyes, who also stand at 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten. "That's probably still the biggest reason why anything works in this game, how the people operate together. This is truly a team game and when there's 11 guys on the field, they all have to be on the same page. That's a big deal."
The Spartans have made a habit of not worrying about what other people think. Two of the three times Michigan State has won a Big Ten Championship under Dantonio, the Spartans weren't even ranked in the preseason. That would be in 2010 and 2013.
So leaping past everyone in the Big Ten East Division -- including three teams in the preseason top 11 -- to sit at No. 12 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings doesn't really mean a whole lot.
Because as the Spartans have shown, it's what you do on the field that really counts. The team already owns top-10 wins this season over Michigan and Penn State, and another prime opportunity awaits on Saturday as the team gets ready for another ranked opponent, this time at No. 13 Ohio State before more than 100,000 Scarlet and Gray clad Buckeye fans.
Brian Lewerke has thrown for 845 yards passing the past two games, becoming one of just three Big Ten quarterbacks in the last 20 years to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games (school-record 445 at Northwestern, 400 vs. Penn State).
"We're really excited to be in this position, especially after the year that we had last year," said senior captain Chris Frey, who grew up just outside of Columbus in Upper Arlington. "To be in that situation is just a testament to the guys on this team giving it everything they have every single week. Just having the mindset that the past doesn't matter. We're going to look forward to the future, we're going to take it week-by-week and day-by-day, and just focus on the task at hand. Every guy on this team has the ability to make plays and to take this team to the next level."
Although the program has been in this situation before, many on this year's team have not. It's what happens when you have 77 underclassmen on your roster.
But a few current starters did play in that famed 2015 late-November game in Columbus, when the No. 9 Spartans, missing starting quarterback Connor Cook, shocked the college football world with a 17-14 win over second-ranked and defending National Champion Ohio State, firmly taking control of the Big Ten East while going on to win the conference title and securing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"I was able to tell some of the younger guys, especially some of the young guys from Ohio, what the atmosphere will be like," said junior linebacker and North Ridgeville, Ohio, native Andrew Dowell, who played on special teams as a freshman against the Buckeyes two years ago. "Just stay locked in; you can't get awestruck by different things. It was great for my personal development and be able to help the younger guys by telling them what to expect."
Only 18 players who have played in a game this season faced Ohio State in 2015. Of those 18, just one started (Gerald Holmes), and three players (Chris Frey, Shane Jones, Khari Willis) made one tackle apiece.
However, in all reality, it's not the inexperience that will be a determining factor in the game. By this point in this season, everyone has been in the trenches for a few months.
"We're excited we have this opportunity, but we've worked for this opportunity and we've channeled everything to get to November."
-MSU head coach Mark Dantonio
"That's what we preach," said sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie, the team's leader in tackles with 77. "Confidence is growing. With a young team you've got to learn a lot. Now 10 weeks in or whatever, 11 weeks in, we're not young anymore, we've got to go. We got our experience and now it's the championship month and we have got to go out there and contend."
The Spartans feature 26 players from the state of Ohio on their 2017 roster, including 10 starters. And half of the current 10 full-time coaches -- Dantonio, Bollman, Mark Staten, Mark Snyder and Mike Tressel -- have spent time at Ohio State during their coaching careers.
"Coach Bollman, when he came to recruit me, he talked a little bit about (the Ohio connection)," said Bachie. "I just knew the team from looking up the roster and stuff and hearing about it -- a bunch of Ohio guys are going there (Michigan State) and this is a special place to me. They take shots on guys and a lot of the guys are from Ohio."
There are key moments in every championship run, and this season has not lacked for drama. From playing in a torrential downpour in the Big House to take down No. 7 Michigan, a lightning delay on the road at Minnesota, travel changes on the way to Northwestern, and a nearly three-and-a-half weather delay vs. seventh-ranked Penn State before winning on the game's final play, it seems like there's something new around every corner. But it's how you handle those situations that define you as a team.
"Every game is going to be different," said Dantonio when reassessing his team's performance against Penn State. "But I think that we've become a little bit more confident as we take each step. I don't want an overconfident team, I want a team that's sure of themselves. We'll play fast and play hard and compete. We're going to make some mistakes and what I've seen so far is the game is going to be tight.
"We'll just keep playing one play at a time. It's not perfect, but few football games are. I'm very confident that our guys are having fun and competing. We've got good leadership in the locker room, good chemistry in the locker room, and there's good emotion."
Every one of the Spartans' Big Ten wins have been by one score or less. When it has mattered most in the fourth quarter, Michigan State has mostly found a way to get the job done this season. In fact, it's a trait handed down from years past, as MSU's 17 fourth-quarter comebacks since Dantonio's arrival in 2007 are the most in the nation during that span. Eleven years of comebacks aren't a coincidence.
Another characteristic of Dantonio's teams are to show up in the biggest games against the highest ranked teams. Since 2013, the Spartans have defeated eight Associated Press Top 10 teams, second most in the country behind only Alabama. Two of those have come against Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes sit just outside the Top 10 at No. 11 in the latest AP Poll, the Spartans understand the significance of this game and the impact it will have in determining who gets to represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.
"We're excited we have this opportunity, but we've worked for this opportunity and we've channeled everything to get to November," Dantonio said.
"Where we're at right now is pretty much where we wanted to be, in control of our own situation, our destiny, I guess. We at least can control some things. That's where you want to be in November. We'll see where it all shakes out and challenges await."
None bigger than this Saturday in Columbus.