EAST LANSING, Mich. — Harlon Barnett figured the Michigan State defense had some good, young talent that had the potential to play this season. The Spartans’ co-defensive coordinator never counted on all those players being on the field at the same time as much as they’ve been, including in the 49-0 win against Rutgers on Saturday that snapped the team’s seven-game losing streak.
Six different freshmen — redshirt or actual — started for Michigan State and a total of 20 played in the game to one degree or another. Some got in as late-game replacements but many figured in the game plan from the beginning.
That’s the state of where the Spartans are heading into the final two games of the regular season.
“I never perceived it happening,” Barnett said. “We saw those guys playing for us, just not starting for us (this season). But, based on how the season was going with injuries and what not, hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. It’ll serve us well going into the future.”
Nine true freshmen have played for Michigan State this season. Donnie Corley and Justin Layne have played on both sides of the ball as wide receivers and cornerbacks. Layne started on defense against Rutgers, his third start at cornerback. Corley caught two passes for 18 yards and made two tackles on defense, including one against receiver Matt Flanagan that was picture-perfect in form and made anyone watching flinch reactively from its ferocity.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been hit that hard,” Corley said. “I’ve probably hit somebody that hard before.”
How much, head coach Mark Dantonio was asked after the game, did that game represent what Michigan State will look like in 2017?
“I would have to count them up,” Dantonio said.
Dantonio was quick to point out how much he appreciates the way seniors like wide receiver R.J. Shelton and quarterback Tyler O’Connor have persevered through a difficult season. Michigan State is now 3-7 overall and the win was its first in seven Big Ten games.
“They’re just hanging tough and playing through the pain a little bit,” Dantonio said. “That’s something that’s got to be of note, too.”
It’s undeniable that the future is now, however. Of the six freshmen starters, five were either on the offensive or defensive lines. Layne was the lone exception.
“I am very excited,” said redshirt freshman Cole Chewins, who started at left tackle in his first career start. He was lined up next to fellow redshirt freshman Tyler Higby. “As you can see, we have a lot of talent, a lot of potential, but we just have to stay focused on this year and next week. We need to continue to grow each game, and take each game as a learning point so we can continue to grow as players and people.”
The next two games against No. 5 Ohio State and No. 10 Penn State — both of which are likely to climb in the College Football Playoff rankings following losses by No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Washington on Saturday — will be more telling of how where these young players stand, now and for the future.
“We’ve got two games left,” sophomore running back LJ Scott said. “We’ve really got nothing to lose, so right now it’s about each other, going out to play for the guy next to us. Getting the win is the most important thing.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo