EAST LANSING, Mich. – Montae Nicholson has heard a few comments as he walks around the Michigan State campus. He smiles and gives a little laugh at the thought.
“Some students, they don’t really say anything to me, but you can just tell,” said the junior safety after practice Tuesday evening.
Yeah, they all can tell. There will be comments, jokes, mean Tweets and media stories critical of the four-game losing streak that Michigan State is trying everything in its power to snap. The only thing the Spartans can do is to prepare, as they did Tuesday, for the next game at Maryland on Saturday night.
Coach Mark Dantonio has called the Duffy Daugherty Football Building/Skandalaris Football Center, where the team meets and practices, a sanctuary. It particularly becomes one when times are tough. And times have never been tougher for Michigan State in the 10 seasons Dantonio has been running the program. The Spartans are 2-4 overall and winless in their three Big Ten games as they get ready for a Maryland team that started the season 4-0 but has lost its last two games.
It’s easy to forget that these players are still young adults, some younger than others, who are far from polished on the field even on victorious Saturdays. They also have lives away from their sanctuary.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a game,” said Brandon Clemons, a sixth-year player who already has a psychology degree and is working on adding a sociology degree to his resume. “Yes, it’s the majority of my life but it’s not my whole life. I’ve still got to finish getting my second degree and I’ve got my other social things I’ve got to take care.”
Clemons says he’s also heard the comments in classes, although they’re not as harsh as they could be.
“It’s nothing demeaning. It’s like “What happened?” and stuff like that,” Clemons said. “We’ve had a great program going on for so many years it’s bound to happen. But, for me personally, I think it sucks because I’ve been here for the ups and the downs. Since the 2012 season my journey here has been a pretty good one.”
Clemons redshirted his freshman season of 2011 when Michigan State went 11-3, reached the inaugural Big Ten championship game and then defeated Georgia in the Outback Bowl. The Spartans went 7-6 in 2012 but that difficult season proved to be a foundation for the next three years that included two Big Ten championships, victories in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
As he walked through the football building on Sunday, Dantonio said he went down the hallway where jerseys from previous bowl games hang and the names of former players who have gone on to play in the NFL are listed. It reminded him of how the program reached those heights.
“I think young people are resilient. I think they bounce back a lot quicker than coaches and other people that do this for a living,” Dantonio said. “We monitor everything, how meetings are. What’s the attitude in meetings? What’s the attitude in the weight room? What’s the attitude in the training room? At every turn, it’s been a positive thing.
“Thus far, I would say, hey, we’re hanging. You’ve got to be a rock. To play this game, you’ve got to be a rock in the first place.”
Part of being a rock means laughing off the comments and jokes and then getting back to work at the sanctuary.
“I haven’t changed anything. If anything, I’m trying to get my teammates to come along with what I’m trying to do,” said Nicholson. “I think we have some of the top talent across the nation, even though we haven’t played like it, I still believe that because there are glimpses that you can see from our play. There are certain plays. I feel like once we get it together and put it together like the last few teams have had I think we have the chance to do something special even though it might not necessarily be this season.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo