EAST LANSING, Mich. — The dream is alive. Sort of.
No. 17 Michigan State’s goals have been ever-changing throughout the season. During the summer, coach Mark Dantonio divided the 2017 season into four phases and told his team he wanted to win them one at a time. Then, as the wins racked up, it became evident that the Spartans would have a shot at a Big Ten East title. So that became the target.
And once Michigan State got creamed 48-3 by Ohio State, the Spartans had to come up with something new. How about 10 wins? Only seven teams in program history have done it. And that was it. But Dantonio wasn’t convinced.
“Coming off of last week’s game, my concern was how we were going to respond,” he said. “If we had won that game the week before, we were playing to represent the East [on Saturday]. I didn’t know how really our guys would respond. What are they gonna play for? What’s the reason now?
“Playing for bowl games is a little bit of an intangible. You know you’re going to a bowl game, but what bowl game? You really don’t know.”
So the Spartans (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) played for their elders on senior day at Spartan Stadium. They played for the lightning bolt on their jackets, reminding them to “be the storm” and embrace the rainy, sleety, snowy mess of an afternoon.
And they took down Maryland (4-7, 2-6) in ugly fashion, 17-7, to keep hopes of a 10-win season alive. Only 4-7 Rutgers, which took a beating from Indiana on Saturday, stands between them and their bowl game.
Michigan State didn’t treat this like any other game. In Week 12 of the season, the Spartans took an extreme measure. On Thursday, Dantonio stepped into the “eagle council” leadership group’s meeting and spoke to his players.
“Coach D was like, ‘You guys gotta back me. We’re gonna go full pads [Thursday],’ ” linebacker Chris Frey said. ” ‘You don’t have to wear kneepads, but we’re going to go full pads.’ That’s the first time it’s ever happened.”
It was a bit of a risk. This late in the year, it could have taken an unnecessary toll on the players. Instead, it reminded the Spartans of the toughness with which they would need to play on Saturday.
And it didn’t take much to summon the anger necessary to play the way they wanted to. If anything, the challenge became making sure that anger didn’t become a detriment.
“We were trying to hold the beast in, hold the caged lion, as Coach D says,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We were itching all week to get back out there. Thursday comes, Friday comes and sitting around all day on Saturday, getting ready to go. I’m glad we peaked at game time.”
Michigan State needed this win. It didn’t bring the fire that Michigan does or the hype that Penn State and Ohio State do. But to reach their newest goal, the Spartans had to come through.
Now they’ll have a chance to push for an Outback Bowl bid, or maybe something bigger. As Dantonio said, they don’t know and they can’t know what’s to come after Rutgers. All they can do is keep winning.
“I’m very proud of how we embraced everything, came out and played, played with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy, and that sideline was alive.”