The Michigan State football team was once again in an insurmountable situation against another top-10 team in No. 6 Penn State. The Nittany Lions raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first half, and the Spartans only found the end zone once in their 28-7 defeat.
It was a third consecutive loss for a team that was once 4-1, and now sits .500 as it enters the final portion of the regular season schedule.
But for Michigan State, it could always be worse. That's the message Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wants his team and Spartan fans to take out of this humbling three-game stretch.
"The beauty is we're not 2-7, we're 4-4," he said. "We got to take that and try to build on those things and get ourselves ready for Illinois. The only way I know how to do that is like I said before - stay tough, stay tough-minded, stay positive; don't get negative on people, place blame and say it's your fault. Stay positive and build into people and keep grinding. That's the only way I've known how to do it and that's what we'll continue to do."
If that's the case, yes, it can always be worse.
Michigan State could be Rutgers — who are 2-6 this season.
In all three phases of the game Saturday night, the Spartans were bland and flawed. Michigan State's offense scored its first touchdown since its 34-10 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 5, when true freshman running back Anthony Williams Jr. scampered into the end zone from 4-yards out, and also turned the ball over on three separate occasions.
With no support, MSU's defense gave up three first-half touchdowns and another in the third quarter, which was more than enough for the Nittany Lions. And the Spartans' special teams units were a complete mess. Matt Coghlin had a 46-yard field goal blocked. Jake Hartbarger, one of better punters in college football, averaged only 31 yards on his seven punts. And Brandon Sowards muffed a punt when he attempted a fair catch at the 6-yard line.
Penn State scored on the next play.
“Well, you have to play better; you can't beat yourself. You have to execute," Dantonio said. "There are certain things when you play a good football team that you cannot do. I would say this particular game, you can't do any of these things and beat anybody."
“As I said to our football team in there, football is a game of toughness, it is a game of toughness," Dantonio said. "You have to block, tackle, and do all that kind of stuff and execute, but you also have to be able to withstand things in terms of things mentally and emotionally. Sometimes you are going to win, sometimes you are going to lose and sometimes you are going to be on the short end of the stick, and I would say we on the short end of the stick today.”
Some players on Michigan State's roster know for a fact that the Spartans' situation could be worse. Senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams has experienced it firsthand when MSU failed to reach a bowl game for the only time during Dantonio's tenure in East Lansing. Williams also knows that his team can recover from tough situations, like when the Spartans finished 10-3 the following season.
“I played here when we went 3-9, so I know it can always get worse, and I just want to make sure my guys know it can always get worse, and that’s the biggest message I can get to these guys," Williams said. "They've got to respond. We've got to pick ourselves up, which we’re very capable of doing.”
However, this time around there won't be a double-digit win turnaround, and with three losses in conference play, a chance to earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game is certainly over. So, what are the Spartans playing for?
"You’re playing the game," senior safety David Dowell said. "Two weeks from now, we got Illinois, so we got to beat them. That’s the biggest thing, regardless of whatever our record is.”
All four games that are left on Michigan State's schedule [vs. Illinois, at Michigan, at Rutgers, vs. Maryland] are winnable. And at 4-4, the Spartans need to win half of them to get to bowl eligibility. MSU won't be throwing in the towel with an entire month of football to play.
“I think as much as anything recollect yourselves, stay positive with what we're doing," Dantonio said. "As difficult as everybody wants to say out there, you can't abandon ship right now – you can't do that.”
If the Spartans can't reach that mark, then at the bare minimum, there won't be another 3-9 season. And Michigan State is most definitely not Rutgers.
So in that essence, the Spartans are right — it could always get worse.
“We are 4-4, as tough as it is to say that because I know everybody wants us to be 8-0 right now, but we're 4-4 and we played four very good football teams, and I think we should be a very football team again too. But right now, we are not playing well enough to be that very good football team," Dantonio said. "We need to recollect ourselves and get ready for Illinois.”