MSU breaks 7-game losing streak, looks ahead to close of season
As MSU sophomore running back Madre London shifted through two Rutgers defenders en route to his second touchdown of the day, fans wearing green and white in the packed Spartan Stadium echoed a therapeutic cheer that passersby on Grand River Avenue could hear.
London’s score made it 49-0 in the ending moments of the third quarter. That’s the way the game finished, as third-string players took the field and the Spartans were able to sing their fight song with the student section for the first time since Sept. 2.
It was the Spartan defense’s first shutout since Purdue in 2013. It held Rutgers to just 40 passing yards, the lowest total since Indiana’s 11 in 2014.
This season has not gone according to plan by any stretch of the imagination –– a season that started with “Back2Back” Big Ten championship aspirations dwindled to a borderline postseason berth during a seven-game losing streak that sucked the life out of the players, coaches and fan base.
All three of them needed this win.
“Great job of Spartan Nation coming out to this football game,” MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game. “You’d wonder what the crowd would be like, but they showed up, and they stayed throughout. I appreciate that very, very much. It’s a good feeling, a good feeling. You’d have thought we’d won the championship in that locker room. It’s been a long time.”
It was a game where every facet of the Spartan team played well. The offense hummed with seamless execution. The defense was stubborn and gritty. The special teams generated good field position for the offense and gave the defense the opportunity to hold their ground.
Now the Spartans look ahead to senior day against No. 2 Ohio State University, who will be looking for vengeance after last year’s defeat by the Spartans, as well as keeping their College Football Playoff hopes alive.
The Spartans sit at 3-7 on the year, with postseason chances being slim to none. MSU will gather the momentum it got from this week and attempt to transfer it to next week against the Buckeyes.
“We’ve got two games left, we’ve really got nothing to lose, so right now it’s about each other, going out to play for the guy next to us, and getting the win is the most important thing,” sophomore running back LJ Scott said. “The main thing they emphasized was playing with passion and going out and having fun, playing for the guy next to us, playing for the program, playing for our mom and dad, and just do it for each other.”
Building for the future
With the season turning out the way it has, getting the youthful players under Dantonio on the field has become a major factor. There is no better way to learn the game of football at the collegiate level other than getting reps in live action, and it was certainly a point of emphasis on Saturday.
“Right now every week something changes,” Dantonio said. “It’s a different game plan, and a different group of people that you are playing against. There’s different pressures — that sort of thing. I think they (the freshmen) played better.”
The absence of junior defensive end Malik McDowell and sophomore cornerback Tyson Smith left the door open for the Spartans to start three true freshman on defense –– defensive linemen Josh King and Mike Panasiuk and cornerback Justin Layne.
Donnie Corley was the lone true freshman starter on offense, but played both sides of the ball and made plays, including a punishing tackle on third-down in the first quarter.
“Those guys are ballin’,” senior safety Demetrious Cox said of Layne and Corley playing cornerback. “Coming from wide receiver jumping straight into corner and being able to play is a big deal. It’s a whole different mentality. Those guys are doing great.”
Redshirt-freshmen Tyler Higby and Cole Chewins held down the left side of the offensive line for MSU. They helped generate 277 rushing yards, a season-high for the Spartans. True freshman wide receiver Trishton Jackson got himself two catches for 67 yards, including his first career touchdown — a 50-yard reception in the first quarter as he dragged three Scarlet Knights defenders into the end zone with him.
Jackson and the rest of the underclassmen who saw an abundance of minutes gave a glimpse of the potential MSU football could have in the coming seasons. For that group of players, they stay close to achieve their goals.
“I’m very excited, we’re a good group, we learn quick,” Jackson said. “We want to just go out there and play to our best ability, that’s why we are playing now. My junior year, I would love to see where we are then.”
Seniors get it done, too
The season has been difficult on everyone in the Spartan locker room, but it’s tough to compare how it feels for the senior class, headlined by players like linebacker Riley Bullough and record-setting tight end Josiah Price. Experiencing three straight 11-win seasons and garnering the success they have had in the past three years makes this season even rougher.
Price took sole possession of the fourth spot all-time in touchdown receptions at MSU with two on Saturday, and fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor turned in a methodical and seemingly effortless three touchdown performance.
“It is great to know that the streak of losses that we had is finally over,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We tried to have fun in the locker room after the game. We know it’s still not the season that we expected, but we know it’s an opportunity to look forward. We got a win today, and we are looking forward to getting another one in the weeks following.”
Dantonio has stressed in almost every season he has been at the helm of MSU football that seniors need to have their best year in their final year. With the record being as poor as it is, some of the performances by senior players get overshadowed by the losses.
For instance, receiver R.J. Shelton is continuing the trend of a new senior receiver stepping up to fill the void in production. Like Tony Lippett and Aaron Burbridge before him, Shelton leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, though he is now tied with Price following Saturday’s contest in that final category.
Dantonio also praised the play of O’Connor, among others. Cox is one senior who looked to have a breakout season, especially after being named a captain in the latter half of the summer. He has been through his ups and plenty of downs this year, but caught a break on an interception –– his first of the season –– that he took back for a touchdown in the first quarter.
“We were playing the hot coverage where we send a blitz, you look at the quarterback’s eyes and make a break on it, and he picked it clean,” Dantonio said of Cox’s interception. “So, that was a great play by him and it was good for him to get that. It will help his confidence, even at the end of the season like this. I think it helps player’s confidence. He needed something good to happen to him. I think that was fortunate for him.”
Dantonio and the Spartans have adjusted their goals around to coincide with the way the season has progressed, but there remains “one focus,” the new mantra Dantonio has adopted for his men. That focus is the next team on the schedule –– and the Spartans looked as if all their focus was on Rutgers.
“One thing that definitely helps our guys is that our practices have been good,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “Shockingly, you’d be like `wow,’ they practice well. They come out there with energy, with enthusiasm, they’re communicating. So the practices have been pretty good, we just weren’t getting the results on Saturdays. So hopefully we can keep the momentum going, but getting this win today does springboard us into next week as well.”
A cohesive offense and a stingy defense had the Spartans clicking on all cylinders Saturday, something that hadn’t been seen since the first half of MSU’s victory against Notre Dame. It looked as if MSU’s mixture of youth and experience wasn’t an issue all year, and finally, it may be resolved.
“I think we are competitive, we come in every day and have extremely good practices each week, even after losing seven-straight games,” Bullough said. “We are coming in and practicing hard, and I think that is a testament to the guys and coaches that we have. I am thankful we could get a win. I am happy for our team and also for Spartan Nation. They have been waiting and finally we could deliver a win.”