EAST LANSING, Mich. — Football coaches and players don’t want to hear anything about moral victories, but if you’re Michigan State, right about now any kind of victory will do.
The Spartans lost their sixth game in a row on Saturday, 32-23 against rival Michigan at Spartan Stadium. It didn’t end up being the rout most everyone believed it would be for the nation’s No. 2-ranked team but the Wolverines were the decidedly dominant team for most of the game. Two Spartans touchdowns in the fourth quarter made the score closer than the game felt.
Maybe it was because no one expected Michigan State to be competitive but there wasn’t the air of disappointment in the postgame press conferences. Not the kind, at least, that lingered over losses to Wisconsin, Indiana, BYU, Northwestern and Maryland the previous five weeks. There actually was a sense that maybe a corner had been turned with the way the Spartans played in the fourth quarter.
Around that corner is Illinois.
“There aren’t any moral victories,” said head coach Mark Dantonio, just as everyone knew he would say, “so we’ve got to take it, but I think you can feel good that we competed. You can feel good that things went this direction. You can feel good as a coach that we got an opportunity to win this game. We really do.”
That’s as close to resignation of reality as you’re going to hear from Dantonio.
Reality is that the Spartans are now 2-6 on the season and 0-5 in the Big Ten. Reality is that Ohio State and Penn State still remain on the schedule. Reality is also that Illinois and Rutgers are next up for Michigan State.
If the execution of play and the effort that was shown in the fourth quarter Saturday can be repeated, there’s a good chance the Spartans won’t have to talk about moral victories the next couple of weeks.
“It’s mentally grueling, to say the least,” QB Tyler O’Connor said. “It’s not the season you ever plan on, obviously. It’s not easy to handle all the time. I never thought any year of my life that I’d come in front of the media this many times my senior year and have this type of conversation.
“There are people that would be giving up at this point in the season or even earlier. If you look at the seasons we’ve had in the past, people could have given up a long time ago. We don’t do that here. You saw a lot of fight, you saw a lot of character today. That’s something we will take into these last four games.”
Down 27-10 at halftime, Michigan State held Michigan (8-0, 5-0) to just 5 points in the second half. The Spartans had been outscored 146-82 after halftime in their first seven games, including 87-30 in the fourth quarter and overtime. Saturday was the first time this season they kept an opponent out of the end zone in the second half of a game.
“If we played a better first half I think it could have been a different outcome,” senior LB Riley Bullough said. “I think it can (carryover). The big thing is just guys having confidence. If you don’t have confidence out there you’re not going to make plays and you’re going to make mistakes. Confidence is key. Hopefully guys gained some today.”
Michigan State wasn’t expected to be close in this game. Michigan maintained control for most of the game but Michigan State had its chances. It turned the ball over on downs three times inside Michigan territory, including a goal-line stand by the Wolverines in the third quarter when Michigan State had seven snaps from the Michigan 9-yard line or closer.
Dantonio didn’t want to settle for a field goal in that situation. The defense had put the offense in prime position to score when Darien Hicks intercepted a pass and returned it 42 yards to the Michigan 33. Michigan State hasn’t done a good job of finishing drives, finishing games this season. It didn’t finish that drive, but Dantonio’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 2 had a message behind it.
“My thinking is that we have to get the inches,” said Dantonio, using one of his favorite phrases. “Obviously, I was wrong. Ever since 2007 when Jehuu Caulcrick had 22 touchdowns, that’s what we do. But that was my decision and I’ll take the heat for it.”
Dantonio is still pushing this team. It is an inexperienced team — nine freshmen again played in the game and this week WR Donnie Corley added playing cornerback to his resume — that showed improvement in the second half.
That’s a good sign.
Right now, Michigan State will take any positive it can.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo