By Noah Trister, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Mark Dantonio and Michigan State clearly have their swagger back.
Long before the 18th-ranked Spartans routed 21st-ranked Washington State 42-17 in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday night, they had already proven their dismal 2016 was an aberration. That 3-9 season was a blemish, no doubt, but Michigan State rebounded in a big way in 2017, going 10-3 with a young team that now seems poised to make a run at a Big Ten title next year.
“I think the biggest thing you learn as a young person or as a coach or anybody, is to get up after you’ve been knocked down,” Dantonio said after Thursday’s game, his 100th win as Michigan State’s coach. “Whether you’re in a corporation or whether you’re in a sport, or whether you’re a coach, the ability to stand up and continue to persevere when things don’t look so well for you. Our football team did that. We came in with a mindset this year and came in with the goals.”
Not much was expected of this year’s Spartans. If they could return to the postseason and avoid the type of off-field problems that damaged the program’s reputation the previous offseason, that would be a step in the right direction. Anything more than that seemed like a stretch.
But by midseason, the Spartans were back in the Big Ten title race, and although those hopes fell apart in a blowout loss at Ohio State in November, Michigan State still has a lot to be pleased with. The Spartans won at Michigan in October, beating their biggest rival for the eighth time in 10 years. They also beat Penn State in early November, and the bowl victory was the most lopsided in program history.
“We can build off momentum that this game brings us, and with a lot of young guys, a lot of work to be done and a lot of potential to be reached,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said.
The Spartans are only two years removed from their appearance in the College Football Playoff. Their terrible 2016 record raised concerns that the program might be sliding back, leaving Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan as the main title threats within the division — but now, Michigan State clearly belongs in that category again heading into 2018.
Lewerke still has two years of eligibility left, and junior running back LJ Scott indicated in a Fox Sports 1 postgame interview that he’d be returning to East Lansing next season. In the bowl, only one offensive starter — lineman Brian Allen — and two on defense — lineman Demetrius Cooper and linebacker Chris Frey — were seniors.
Now it’s reasonable for the Spartans to dream big again — the way they’ve done for so much of Dantonio’s tenure.
“We take ours one at a time. So first one is winning the East, and then the Big Ten championship,” receiver Felton Davis said. “And then put ourselves into a position to win the national championship.”
Michigan State’s nonconference schedule next year includes a trip to Arizona State, but the Spartans will be at home for crucial Big Ten matchups with Michigan and Ohio State, and that should only boost expectations even more. After a year of doubt and discontent, Michigan State has reasserted itself.
“I would like to say we’re back, but 2018 is around the corner. So you can’t say that because you’ve got to start proving yourself all over again,” Dantonio said. “But this was as great of a football season that I have had as a coach because of where we came from and what we were able to accomplish.”
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