Through the past few weeks, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has used the Spartans' 2012 season as a means of motivation for his team.
That MSU team beat Minnesota in the final game of the season to reach bowl eligibility. The Spartans used that momentum and defeated TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
That spurt catapulted the Spartans into a three-year window of dominance where it won two conference championships, the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and appeared in the College Football Playoff.
This year, Michigan State won its final two games against Rutgers and Maryland to reach bowl eligibility for the 12th time under Mark Dantonio. Following a frustrating 6-6 season, the Spartans will head to Yankee Stadium in New York to play Wake Forest in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec 27 (3:20 p.m. ESPN).
“Excited about the opportunity to represent Michigan State at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl," Dantonio said. "Should be an exciting atmosphere for our football team. A lot of our guys have not been to New York City. I've heard great things about the bowl game from various coaches that have played there, Big Ten and otherwise. Our student-athlete experience should be outstanding there."
Dantonio said the Spartans begin their bowl prep this Friday and Saturday. One question MSU will have during those practices is working in new quarterbacks as fifth-year starter Brian Lewerke finishes out his college career.
“We can’t play four guys in the bowl game, but we’re gonna make sure that we give them opportunities in practice to get meaningful reps,” Dantonio said. “I think sometimes in normal practices you tend to go ones and twos, and your threes and fours don’t get as many reps. So we need to make sure they have an opportunity to show what they have: meaningful reps within reason.”
Dantonio said he did not care where Michigan State ended up for its bowl game — whether it was Detroit for the local Quick Lane Bowl or New York. Instead, he welcomed the opportunity to finish the year on a 3-game win streak and surge into next season with steam.
“We were going to make whatever experience we had, the opportunity to make and go to a great experience for our student-athletes, for our players," Dantonio said Sunday evening. "So regardless of which bowl game we went to, we were going to embrace that and move forward.”
The last four seasons have been a struggle for Michigan State to return to that stretch of dominance after 2012.
The Spartans followed its College Football Playoff appearance with a disastrous 3-9 season in 2016, before flipping the script in 2017 by finishing 9-3, and winning a 10th game against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
But MSU has been on a downward slide the past two seasons, finishing 7-6 in 2018 and needing a win Dec. 27 to match that mark this year.
The Spartans were defeated 7-6 by Oregon in last season's RedBox Bowl — and then the teams progressed in opposite directions. The Ducks used that victory to their advantage, finishing 11-2 with a victory over Utah Friday night to win the Pac-12. The Ducks will face Wisconsin on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl Game.
MSU went backwards.
Realizing the situation the Spartans are in, and that there isn't any changing it, Dantonio looks at last year's bowl counterpart as a case-study for what he hopes his team can accomplish this postseason, and what it can do for his team in the future.
“I think you want to have momentum leaving your season," Dantonio said. "We were able to do that in '12 and it paid dividends in ’13. As far as this year, we look forward to doing that. As I said before, you sort of ride towards the horizon ... I just know that 7-6 is better than 6-7, is better than 6-6."
"That's where we find ourselves right now. I don’t like being there, but at the same time, we are where we’re at, and we need to be able to do something about that.”