No matter how bitter a taste a regular season leaves, a successful postseason will leave a sweet taste for many months to follow.
A 14-1 season becomes sour if that lone loss comes in the National Championship Game. A 7-6 year leaves a foundation to build upon if it culminates in a bowl win, no matter how insignificant. Any program will take the former, but Michigan State — and surely others — understand the value of finishing strong.
“It’s like I told our players: If you do nothing but win that bowl game, you’re a bowl game champion,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Wednesday. “You can stick champions on the end of your résumé for that particular year. That’s big. It sends everybody spinning in the right direction.
“If you lose it, you have to regroup a little bit. You regroup, you take in the consequences of your total season, look at it as a whole. You have to change things, mix things up, whatever you have to do, critique it. We do that anyway. Then you move forward.”
It doesn’t matter whether Michigan State finds itself in a “lower-tier bowl,” as one player referred to it while thinking about the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl wins from earlier in his college days. The Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which pits the No. 16 Spartans against No. 18 Washington State on Thursday, grants Dantonio’s team a host of notable opportunities.
The chance to earn Dantonio his 100th victory at Michigan State has been on the minds of the players, as has the prospect of becoming the eighth team in program history to finish with at least 10 wins. And even the seniors relish the opportunity to help build for next year and beyond, especially given the 3-9 season to which they responded.
Mark Dantonio and Brian Allen briefly address the crowd at halftime. pic.twitter.com/bAjWGIrI1G
— Luke Srodulski (@lsrodulski) December 10, 2017
“It’s pretty special to be on this team, especially with everything that we went through last year, just to be able to get back to a point where nobody really thought we could,” senior center Brian Allen said. “Just to get this place back on track is pretty cool. … I’m really excited for what they have in the future coming back.”
The game isn’t on New Year’s Day. It’s not the Outback Bowl, which many Michigan State players wanted and expected. But it’s no cakewalk, either. Depending on which sports book you choose, you’ll see either team favored.
The unexpected destination also has proved to be one of the more unique ones, especially considering Michigan State has never played in the Holiday Bowl. Freshman defensive back Emmanuel Flowers is from Chino, Calif., the longest trip home for any Michigan State player. San Diego is even farther away.
“I’ve never imagined that I’d be here in San Diego on Christmas,” tight end Matt Sokol said. “It’s a blessing, really. I’ve never been to California before, so it’s a really cool deal to be out here playing football. It feels a little weird because this is my first warm Christmas ever, and near a beach and the ocean and everything. It really something, and I’m just very thankful for the opportunity.”
It almost feels like a gift, even though Michigan State earned it on the field. Last year, the Spartans didn’t have a chance to play this late in the season. After a 45-12 shellacking at Penn State to end the season, the players had more time than they would have liked to contemplate the first bowl-less season for any of the non-transfers.
Not only do they now get to bask in the California sun late in December, but the Spartans will battle under the lights once more. Once Thursday comes around, “Holiday” will be much less important than “Bowl” to Michigan State.
“It’s rewarding,” Dantonio said of the opportunity. “That’s an understatement, probably. We’ve been through a lot. Again, I go back to our administration, everybody involved, coaches staying the course, whoever it would be. Some of you tapped me on the shoulder to say, ‘Hang in there.’
“A lot of people, our players, just wanted us to forge forward. That’s important. That’s important that we did this all together. It wasn’t one person. It wasn’t me. It’s everybody together.”