Grinz on Green: Spartans Looking to Finish Season on Positive Note at Penn State
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State appears to finally be getting over the hump. Little did the Spartans know in August that they wouldn’t reach it until end of the road.
Their last chance to further verify the progress made in the second half of the season will come in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. season finale at No. 7 Penn State, which will be playing for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game if No. 2 Ohio State defeats No. 3 Michigan at high noon.
Despite its 3-8 record, a different starting lineup every week and major fluctuations at all but a few positions and no chance of qualifying for a bowl, MSU has played its best football in a nine-point loss to the Wolverines on Oct. 29, during the 49-0 rout of Rutgers and in last week’s 17-16 defeat against the Buckeyes.
After practicing 11 straight weeks following the bye on the second Saturday of the season, Coach Mark Dantonio indicated the Spartans could use a break from the “grind” while at the same time wishing he had more opportunities to see how their progress would play out on the field.
“I would like to continue to try play ourselves into something because I don’t think we’re that far away, I really don't,” he said. “I see good things out there. This will be our fourth top-10 team we’re playing this year and I think we will play with them.
“You want to keep on competing, so I’m quite sure a lot of our players would not want the season come to an end. Certainly, I think our seniors really don’t want this to end.”
By the same token, Dantonio said the 2017 season begins on Monday for returning players such as Robert Bowers, a redshirt sophomore defensive end who has played in only six games as a Spartans and is scheduled to make just his third career start.
“This game means a lot because it will set the tone for next year and I believe we’re going to have an awesome team next year,” he said. “We might be young, but I think we’ll have a great team.
“I feel like I know the game and how it feels to play now and in the offseason I’ll be more ready to play next year. It feels good to be out there – a dream-come-true.”
The underclassmen who joined the program expecting the unprecedented success of the past six seasons to continue are disappointed, Bowers said, but far from discouraged.
“The younger guys are very hungry and I believe this next year they’re going to step up and go harder because we don’t like losing,” Bowers said. “I think this losing experience is going to help us to work so hard in the offseason that we’re going to perform on the field next year.
“We preach that we got to come in and work our butts off in the offseason and you have to do something to perfect something you do on the football field each and every day.”
Pretty much every play in each of his 10 career games has been a revelation for redshirt freshman defensive tackle Raequan Williams, who banged heads with two projected high NFL draft choices on Ohio State’s offensive line.
“I think that’s what every young player goes through even in practice,” Williams said. “I’m still learning and just trying to get better. We all see the potential we got and the chemistry is growing so everybody is happy and even hungrier for next year, because we know what’s going to happen.
“We all feel like we’ve got a good feel for each other now and just wish we had more games to play because we all know our roles. That just eventually came with the chemistry, but now we feel like we’ve got it and we’re having a lot of fun.”
"Obviously, this is not where we wanted to be when we established our goals at the beginning of the season. But saying so, it's not setting us back in any way as younger players. If anything, we're taking from it that we all have to grow and develop as a team and come together so this won't happen again."
-Redshirt freshman OT Cole Chewins
Some may view oft-repeated references to MSU’s youth and inexperience as an alibi but Bowers uses himself as an example of how the Spartans are completely different team from the one he made his debut with in the season opener against Furman.
“I’m different in every way since the first game,” said Raequan Williams. “I remember not talking as much on the field and now I’m talking all the time to Mike and communicating a lot. And if somebody doesn’t know something there’s just the chemistry factor where we work our way through it.
“And we’re playing a lot faster, too. I wasn’t lost out there all the time, but I was just thinking too much and it caused me to play slower. Now we’re just playing free and doing it a lot better.”
Cole Chewins, a towering 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman, began the season on special teams but has started the last two games at left offensive tackle. Although somewhat undersized at 273 pounds, he’s getting a head start at growing into the position, something that may not have happened to this extent had the line been stocked with established veterans.
Known for staying on the field long after practice to work on individual blocking drills, Chewins can see how the experience he and the other young players are absorbing this season will pay off for the next three or four years.
“Obviously, this is not where we wanted to be when we established our goals at the beginning of the season,” Chewins said. “But saying so, it’s not setting us back in any way as younger players. If anything, we’re taking from it that we all have to grow and develop as a team and come together so this won’t happen again.
“We just have to learn from this, continue to grow, develop our technique and do it better next year. I definitely think I’ve grown a lot from having the opportunities to play in the games, talking with the older guys, leaning on them and having them teach me the way. That just helps build confidence and growth. Some guys develop faster than others, some slower, so it’s just a matter of staying the course, trusting the process and continuing to work through those rough spots until you get past them.”
Chewins feels he’s much calmer than he was in his first career start, against Rutgers, “but I’ve still got a lot to work on,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s smooth, but the transition gets a little bit better every week as you gain confidence and have that experience.”
As a fifth-year senior playing in his final game as a Spartan, quarterback Tyler O’Connor believes MSU can parlay this season of disappointment into renewed success for Michigan State in the coming seasons.
“If we can come out of Happy Valley with a win in a big-time game it will show we never gave up and we have heart, and it will send the young guys out with a message and a reminder,” he said. “Something I would say to them is, and it’s an obvious statement, don’t get used to this because this isn’t it.
“The second thing I would say, even though we said this early on, and it’s hard to get this across to young guys, there’s always a play to be made and someone’s got to make it -- don’t be scared to be that guy to make a play.”
The big plays, many involving underclassmen, have come more frequently in recent games, which could be portent of things to come.
“We’re playing good football right now against very good teams, and we’ve been ahead in every game,” O’Connor said. “It’s just finding ways to win at the end, which is the most important time and which is what we’ve done here in the past. We’ve had close games with a lot of the same teams we’ve had close games with this year, but we just found a way to win in the past.
“Once we have talks with these young guys after the season’s over and get them feeling that way and remembering the plays that were made, I think this team will get right back to where it was.”
Dantonio has no choice but to accept this season as a reality check, but it should be noted that no one has ever died from a slice of humble pie.
“It’s different, there is no question about that,” he said. “That’s not something that we have had to go through, but it’s something maybe that this program needs right now. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, our personnel, everything about us and we’ll work through all the different parameters of it.
“Recruiting starts, actually Sunday, so we have two weeks out in that capacity. Then we’ve got some time to sort of sit back and start to look at what happened. We will trace those things and go from there, but we’ll fix it. We’ve got a great core of football players back, a lot of guys who played a lot of football, guys who are just beginning their football careers, whether they’re redshirt freshmen, true freshmen or true sophomores. We have a large (number) of players in that group.”