Sunday, February 25, 2024

'U' works to avoid letdown

Sophomore wide reciever Agim Shabaj and junior snapper Andrew Petterson celebrate defeating Iowa 20-10 Saturday at Spartan Stadium during the Big Ten opener. —

As subtle as it seems, a win over Indiana this weekend could be historic for No. 25 MSU.

The Spartans finished the 1999 regular season on a three-game winning streak, the last time they won three straight.

Spartans players and coaches are glad to have beaten Notre Dame and Iowa but know they can't let their excitement and top-25 ranking get the best of them - or else the Hoosiers might on Saturday.

"It's kind of too early for that kind of stuff," senior quarterback Jeff Smoker said of the Spartans debuting in the AP poll.

"Early in the season, you see so many teams going in and out of rankings, they really don't mean much until the end of the season. I take a peek at them, I like to see where we're at as well as where other teams are."

Only senior wide receiver Ziehl Kavanaght and senior offensive lineman Paul Harker were around in MSU's glory days of the '99 season. Both seniors redshirted that year and have shared their experience with the younger players, reminding them to remain humble.

"We haven't won that many games," Harker said. "It's not like we've had a great deal of success; people are just excited about the fact that we're 1-0 in the Big Ten, and that's fine to be excited about it, but we got to make sure that we've got Indiana coming in and it's not like we can just show up and win."

In 2001, MSU faced Indiana at home after defeating Wisconsin and Michigan, entering the game with a 3-1 conference record. But the Spartans lost to the Hoosiers, 37-28, and went on to lose the final two games of their conference schedule, knocking them out of the running for a Jan. 1 bowl-game bid.

Last season, the Spartans only enjoyed one winning streak, a two-gamer, to open the schedule but then lost two games as they entered the Big Ten and later lost four straight - taking them out of bowl contention completely.

So this season, the Spartans players are staying focused as they battle with the rest of the Big Ten.

"We have a mindset that we want to compete in the Big Ten," sophomore running back Jaren Hayes said. "We're always focused. We're excited that we've won some games, but that doesn't mean anything until the end of the year when we finish."

Head coach John L. Smith and his staff concentrate on improving the team's focus as the season wears on.

"We've still got to continue to draw those blinders in and keep all that peripheral out and focus on what it is that we have to do," Smith said. "That's part of our problem - we talk about 'win this play.' We haven't been able to focus on 'this play.' That's us as a whole. I'm talking about the entire football team."

Smoker said the team's coaches have not only kept the players focused but motivated as well.

"This coaching staff has brought a whole new attitude to this team," Smoker said, "not just the new offense and defense, but they've instilled a confidence in us that we've taken on as a team and we're playing differently.

The senior signal caller has seen both the ups and downs in recent years and claims the mood of the team this season has changed for the better.

"It's just kind of something when we're out here practicing," Smoker said. "Guys are upbeat, guys are getting the things done, we're making plays, we're having a fun time in practice and on the field.

"It's just a different attitude overall."

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