EAST LANSING, Mich. — The answer required only one word. “Yes,” LJ Scott said. Yes indeed, the Michigan State Spartans do remember what it is like to win a football game.
Please forgive the query, but it’s been a long time since they’ve experienced that feeling.
Michigan State hasn’t won since Sept. 17 when it beat Notre Dame 36-28 in South Bend. That win gave the Spartans a 2-0 record and pushed their national ranking up to No. 8.
Since then, the Spartans have lost six in a row.
Michigan State travels to Illinois to play an Illini team this Saturday that is also 2-6. The game provides Michigan State with a prime opportunity to end the program’s longest losing streak in 34 years and regain that winning feeling.
“We definitely remember,” said Scott, a sophomore running back. “We can never forget how that feeling is. We most certainly want to go back to winning. That comes from finishing it the fourth quarter and from playing together and just keeping our momentum high and our expectations high. It’s knowing what we can do on offense. Sometimes we get caught lacking like that, and it has hurt us in the fourth quarter.”
One win won’t reverse the course of the season. It would provide some confidence to a team that has sorely lacked any recently. Rutgers, which like Michigan State is 0-5 in the Big Ten, comes to East Lansing on Nov. 12. The next two weeks offer Michigan State a real shot at raising its self-esteem before it ends the regular season with games against No. 6 Ohio State and at No. 12 Penn State.
“I think our focus right now is one focus: let’s get ourselves ready to play,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Every week we’ve come ready to play. I don’t think there’s one week where we’ve come out and been flat. We played, we’ve been ahead. We have to maintain that energy, that enthusiasm, and cannot go this way when something negative happens to us.
“But you got to maintain and be vigilant. I don’t know any other way to say it. That’s how I’m built. That’s how we’re built here. We’re going to push through these things.”
Ten different players have been first-time starters for Michigan State this season. Nine freshmen have played and used up their redshirt seasons, the highest number in Dantonio’s 10 seasons.
Dantonio says he’s not playing for the future in the final four games of the regular season, but how well the Spartans play in these games can have a positive effect on next season and beyond.
“They mean a lot,” redshirt freshman left guard Tyler Higby said. “I can’t keep making the same mistakes I’ve been making. I’ve got to keep growing. I’m learning, I’m asking questions, I’m making sure that I don’t keep making the same mistakes I’ve made this year.”
Higby has started the last four games as the offensive line has settled on a starting five and small rotation after beginning the season with multiple lineup combinations. That stability has helped produce back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. Scott has rushed for 267 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games against Maryland and Michigan. He had never rushed for consecutive 100-yard games before in his career.
“Knowing my read and knowing where (the defender) will be at and hitting the hole at 100 percent,” said Scott about his improved performance. “That’s something I try to pick up more as I play college football. I try to focus on the little things. Regardless if it’s working on my step, taking a jab step or whatever the case may be, I’m trying to be all in.”
Michigan State’s six losses have come to teams with a combined record of 31-17, and none of those teams have a losing record. The Spartans had leads in the second half of three of those games but they’ve also been outscored 92-43 in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Spartans outscored Michigan 13-5 in the second half last Saturday. It was the first time all season they had kept an opponent out of the end zone in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to break the losing streak.
“We still haven’t won, so we’ve got to do more,” junior right guard Brian Allen said. “Whatever we’ve been doing the last two weeks, we’ve got to keep building off it. It’s good to be going in the right direction but ultimately we’ve got to do more to get a win.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo