When Mark Dantonio stood at the podium for his weekly press conference nearly a week ago and called this past Saturday’s game a “program game,” some scoffed.
A program game?
Wasn’t this the same team that used to talk about Rose Bowls and national championships at the beginning of the year, now sitting with a losing record with a week left in the regular season?
The same team that lost more games this season than it had in the previous two years combined? How was this a program game?
Yet in the MSU football team’s (6-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten) methodical domination of Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) 26-10 on Saturday, the Spartans showed exactly what their head coach meant.
Has this team underperformed this season? Absolutely.
Have they been disappointing? Of course.
Did they fall well short of not only their goals, but also the goals of the fan base? No question.
Yet through all of that, through the letdown with Iowa, the heartbreak with Michigan, the stunner with Nebraska and more, there was a constant, determined fight from a team that refused to give up.
That might not seem noteworthy to most, but it’s one of the most telling indications of the growth this football program has made under Dantonio.
Countless MSU teams have suffered heartbreak, saw the writing on the wall for the season and flat-out quit.
Nothing defined “Same Old Spartans” quite like folding when the going got tough.
It was a culture and mindset Dantonio had to form from scratch, that no matter how many breaks didn’t go the Spartans’ way, they never would relent.
The true test of strength in character can’t come during 11-win seasons with miraculous Hail Marys and fake field goals against rivals.
It comes when real adversity stares you straight in the eyes and challenges you, and no matter how frustrated — and at times flat-out angry — this team became, they never blinked.
There are a number of things you can criticize about this season, from the play-calling to the decision-making and more — I know I have — but you can’t dispute this team’s heart.
That’s why Saturday was a “program game.”
It showed this team could travel more than 600 miles to play in the frigid cold in a game that had far less meaning than they had hoped at the beginning of the year.
The carrot was dangling in front of them; there didn’t have to be another month of tedious practices. A miserable season could have been over right then and there.
But the response was emphatic — this team wanted to play on, and now they will.
With MSU’s bowl streak extended to a school-record six consecutive seasons — every single season under Dantonio — it confirms the work he and his staff have done in East Lansing, that their version of MSU’s season from hell still involves playing in a bowl game.
It’s not as sexy as a Big Ten title, but in many ways, it’s equally important.
Josh Mansour is a State News sports reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.