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VANDYKE: Sparty is getting back to fighting shape

Josh VanDyke • Oct 5, 2017 at 5:00 AM

After winning 11 or more games in five of the last six seasons, two Big Ten titles and four bowl games, it was easy for the Michigan State football program to rest on its laurels.

It was an odd position for the program, especially one that had been playing with a “chip on its shoulder” and turning disrespect from outside the program into internal fuel, to suddenly be in a position where they were being praised and lauded for their accomplishments.

Sparty had won a few title bouts, started reading his own press clippings and stopped training as hard, put on some bad weight and didn’t have the same championship drive that he once enjoyed.

In order to stay focused and driven to achieve more, you need senior leadership, a talented quarterback and an elite defense.

Michigan State had none of those things in 2016, and the result was an embarrassing 3-9 season that left many wondering if Michigan State’s run of championship-level play was over.

To make matters worse, the program dealt with several off-the-field incidents that were both heinous and shameful to anyone who associates themselves with the school.

The rumblings began outside the program that maybe head coach Mark Dantonio had lost control of the team and that Michigan State was doomed to repeat its 2016 failures.

That’s when things started to change.

Mark Dantonio made a firm stand this spring, dismissing all four players who were involved in sexual assault cases before the verdicts were even reached.

“It was my decision,” Dantonio said during a June 6 press conference. “You have to ask yourself about the morals in this. From my perspective, the morals were not where they needed to be. And conversely, this decision was going to be made upon recognition of the facts. I have decided that regardless of the final outcome of the criminal process, those individuals have been dismissed from our program, effective immediately.

“This is an extremely challenging situation that we have taken very seriously and has affected everyone in this program. The high standards I have established for this program will not change, and the values that we teach to everyone in this program will be enforced. I expect all of our players and staff to conduct themselves in a manner that reflect the ideals of this university.”

With that decision, Dantonio effectively plucked the bad apples from the program’s tree and turned a corner in what was a trying time. A few more players transferred out of the program, while a couple recruits decommitted, but those that stayed were in it for the long haul.

FRESH START

As exciting as it is when the college football season kicks off, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a team that was more excited than Michigan State to start the 2017 season and leave the 2016 debacle behind.

The Spartans collectively hit the reset button and used that new energy to come flying out of the gate with back-to-back wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan.

Sure, a 35-10 and 28-14 win over a pair of MAC schools doesn't suddenly mean you’re back as a program, but it was the way that Michigan State was playing that was refreshing.

After being knocked down and counted out, Sparty got back to basics, jumped back in the ring and started throwing punches again.

After years of playing hard-nosed defense, ball-control offense and elite level special teams play, those facets waned in 2016. The defense wore down late in games, the offense had no identity or flow and the special teams was a disaster.

So far in 2017, the Spartans’ recipe for success has been the staple of their Big Ten Championship teams: play outstanding defense, don’t turn the ball over on offense and use superb punting to pin opponents deep in their own territory.

That recipe went sour against Notre Dame two weeks ago, when the Spartans turned the ball over three times against a stingy Notre Dame defense that quickly turned those miscues in three scores for the Irish.

Sparty lost its first big rematch on its revenge tour. Now what?

I left Spartan Stadium that night worried about if this team would ever recover from such an embarrassing showing on the national stage.

I should have known better than to doubt Mark Dantonio in times of adversity.

The Spartans responded last week with a 17-10 win over an Iowa team that is essentially a carbon-copy of their program. The other difference is that Michigan State had more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

The Michigan State defense limited the run-heavy Hawkeyes to just 19 yards on 25 carries last weekend. That alone is proof that the Spartan defense has an edge to it again.

The Michigan State offense is establishing an identity, as well. Sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke is already more polished at the position than former quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook were at this stage in their careers.

His ability to extend plays with his legs and scramble for first downs is something Michigan State hasn’t had since Drew Stanton. Add in some growing playmakers like Felton Davis at wide receiver, Matt Sokol at tight end and L.J. Scott at running back and you have a solid core to build around.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

The biggest challenge the Spartans are facing this season is their collective inexperience.

Of the 26 players that are currently on the first and second string depth charts, only three of those players are seniors. That’s a lot of young players with limited experience in big games.

While that could mean some growing pains this fall, that also means the future is bright for this program.

Freshman cornerback Josiah Scott is already the best player on the defensive unit, while sophomore Joe Bachie might end up being the most talented middle linebacker in the Mark Dantonio era. The pieces are in place for the Spartans to cycle back up to championship-level competition. Now the only question is — can they win a headline bout?

Sparty has already shown some championship resolve, but can he slug it out against a heavy-betting favorite?

Michigan State is a 12.5-point underdog at Michigan on Saturday. That seems fair considering it’s the No. 7-ranked team in the country at home against an unranked opponent that went 3-9 last season.

But, we all know none of that matters in this rivalry.

Michigan is the fan-favorite fighter with a great PR agent, while Michigan State is the former champion that everyone thinks has lost a step.

Michigan State probably doesn’t have the experience to pull off the upset this year. In 2015, it was the play of senior quarterback Connor Cook that helped the Spartans stay close enough with Michigan to pull off the improbable blocked punt heard around the world.

The Spartans don’t have that veteran presence this year at a lot of key positions, so it wouldn’t surprised me to see the offense struggle against Michigan’s stifling defense, turn the ball over a few times and lose a tough road game.

But, if there’s anything I’ve learned through the debacle of 2016, it’s that you should never count out a Mark Dantonio-coached team when they have that proverbial “chip on their shoulder”.

Michigan will be fighting to prove they are elite and keep their championship hopes hymning along, while Michigan State is looking for redemption and to prove to the college football world that there’s still plenty of fight in this former champion.

One thing is for sure — this is going to be a heavyweight slugfest from start to finish and it will be 12-round fight — with two fighters’ dreams hanging in the balance.

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