When the MSU football team hits the field for its 97th homecoming game this weekend, there will be more on the line than the usual celebration of returning alumni.
The Spartans (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) are set to host a critical matchup with Iowa (3-2, 1-0) Saturday (noon, ESPN), a game further amplified by the importance of MSU overcoming its inconsistency and hitting its stride at the season’s midpoint.
Senior linebacker Chris Norman said the team feels a sense of urgency to ratchet up its play this weekend entering the season’s second half.
“This game is really important,” Norman said.
“Iowa’s a tough opponent, (they play) physical football, it’s our Homecoming and there’s a lot riding on this game, so this is definitely one of those ones that you have to get up for and be ready to go, and we will.”
After seeing big dividends last week when head coach Mark Dantonio inserted freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge into the starting lineup, MSU will attempt to build off that success with a couple of others moving up the depth chart.
Sophomore linebacker Taiwan Jones is listed as a co-starter with Norman, and redshirt freshman RJ Williamson has moved up to become the team’s starting safety, following a career-high nine tackles last weekend.
“We’re midway through the season, and our coaches always say, ‘When your name is called, stand up, stand out, be ready and be prepared,’” Williamson said.
As someone who started as an underclassman last season, junior safety Isaiah Lewis said he knows the struggles the young players will face, but when it gets late in the season, everyone’s a veteran.
He said the key for the defense is finding the nastiness within the unit that made them successful last year.
“At this point in the game, you have to be stepping up. Coming into week seven, seventh game of the season, you know what’s going on already, you know what’s about to happen (and) every game’s going to be hard by now, so you’ve got to step up,” Lewis said.
Last year’s nastiness was most noticeably on display in a victory over archrival Michigan, a game that was part of a difficult four-game stretch in which MSU won three out of four against teams such as U-M, Wisconsin and Nebraska on its way to the Big Ten championship game.
Junior linebacker Max Bullough said because the team is about to enter a similar stretch, where it will play each of those three teams consecutively after Saturday’s game, it’s important for the team to begin building momentum.
“We had a similar stretch last year, and heading into Iowa, it’s going to be crucial for us to get the momentum and kind of a feel-good win,” Bullough said. “They’re all big, but this is obviously a pivotal game in the season.”
Dantonio said he also sees similarities to last year’s challenges, and that although stress is bad, the pressure to reach expectations is good.
“Everywhere in America right now, every college football team feels a sense of urgency,” Dantonio said.
“We’ve always felt a sense of urgency. If we were 6-0 or 5-1, there would still be a sense of urgency. If you look (backward), somebody’s gaining on you, and that’s sort of the way it is. You need to stay ahead of everything.
“We just need to continue to play through the storm. That’s sort of where we’re at. Right now, we’re in a little storm. We were in a little storm last year at this time.”