By Noah Trister
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Over three weeks ago, at media day, Mark Dantonio stated emphatically that his Michigan State team would be ready when it was time for the season opener against Bowling Green.
Now, game week has arrived, and Dantonio’s attitude hasn’t changed.
“We’re very, very ready to go,” he said Tuesday. “It’s been a long time coming. We sat and waited for about nine months for this opportunity, so we’ll be ready.”
For most of Dantonio’s tenure, a game like this might have felt like a tuneup for Michigan State, but after a terrible 2016 season and a tumultuous offseason, the opportunity to take the field again — regardless of the opponent — is cause for excitement. Last year’s 3-9 record was humbling for the Spartans, who enter Saturday’s game amid little fanfare after spending most of the past seven years among the Big Ten’s elite.
“We need a starting point. This will give us a starting point, one way or the other,” said Dantonio, who is entering his 11th season as Michigan State’s coach. “We’ve got players that can play anywhere in the country. I’m very, very — feel very strong on that.”
The Michigan State depth chart underscores the challenge facing Dantonio and his team. The first-team defense includes six sophomores, and on offense, there are five sophomores and a redshirt freshman listed among the first teamers.
It’s a young team and — with the exception of some good depth at running back — an unproven one.
“I think we’re a lot ready,” junior LJ Scott, one of those talented running backs, said Tuesday. “If you would have seen in practice today, we had a few fights out there. … I think we’re all ready to go. We’ve got something to prove.”
After reaching college football’s playoff in 2015, the Spartans looked sluggish in last year’s win over Furman in their opener. In retrospect, that may have been a sign of things to come.
Michigan State started 2-0, then didn’t win another game until November. In the offseason that followed, four players were dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations. The damage to the program’s reputation — both on and off the field — was obvious .
Even Tuesday, Dantonio was answering questions about a player who has had legal issues. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper, who started 11 games last season, is now listed as a backup on the depth chart for the opener. Cooper accepted a plea deal in which an assault charge against him would be dismissed in favor of a littering fine if he complied with certain conditions.
“It’s all performance based. We’ve gone slowly with Coop as we’ve gone through this, but it’s been performance based,” Dantonio said. “We anticipate him playing. And really when you look at the depth chart right now, it’s a starting point for us.”
Michigan State has won 18 consecutive home openers, one of the longest streaks in the country. Recently, the games haven’t been much to watch — the past four years, the Spartans have opened against Mid-American Conference or FCS foes, and their performances have generally been less than convincing. There’s a sense now that Michigan State would like to be a bit more impressive this weekend.
“Like Coach ‘D’ always says, man, we’re going to leave the past in the past,” Scott said. “Obviously, we think about it. It’s our motivation as of right now, but right now we’re just focusing on Bowling Green.”
NOTES: Dantonio began his news conference Tuesday by expressing condolences to the family of Jud Heathcote, the former Michigan State basketball coach who died Monday . “When I came here as an assistant in ’95, he was still the head basketball coach. Got to know him a little bit,” Dantonio said. “It was sort of a shock today when I woke up today and I came in the office and heard of his passing, so just wanted to offer support.”
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