EAST LANSING - Despite priding himself on his positive attitude and ability to always look forward, junior linebacker Denicos Allen could only react with frustration, anger and a sense of sadness when talking about a season that could have been.
Allen and his Michigan State (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) teammates will be trying to become bowl eligible for a sixth straight season when they face Minnesota (6-5, 2-5) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Minneapolis, Minn.
But even if they are victorious, there will still be questions on his mind about what could have been.
"I've definitely been thinking about that but I've been trying my hardest to stay focused on this season and finishing off strong,'' said Allen, who is tied for second on the team with 72 tackles and ranks third on the Spartans with nine tackles for loss. "But as a competitor you can't help but have that in the back of your mind. This season has been hard to go through. It's been rough. You're 5-6 and you know you could be 10-1 and that's hard to swallow.
"The toughest thing has been knowing that we have a top defense and things haven't gone our way. It kind of makes you feel like you're not doing enough, like you're not really one of the top defenses because you've still got a losing record. Defense wins championships and I feel like that if the teams didn't score the points they did than we would have won. So as a defense, I think it's been tougher on us.''
Despite all of the what-ifs surrounding this season, Allen maintains that this can still be a pretty good season if MSU can close out things with a win against the Gophers.
"We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to swallow it and get ready for the next opponent. There's no time to be moping around here. We've lost and as usual, it's time to get ready for the next opponent and that's Minnesota. You've just got to learn from it and move on and that's what we've been doing.''
While Allen always thought his ascension to a starting position may have been the toughest battle he would ever have to go through, the ups and downs of this season have provided an entirely different perspective on what it means to be successful at the Division I level on a consistent basis.
"You've got to come out every game and you've got to finish. That's the big thing I learned because either we didn't start good and we ended fast or we started fast and ended slow. We have to play the whole game, play hard every play and stop making the little mistakes.''
Win or lose Saturday at Minnesota, Allen said he's going to do everything in his power over the offseason to make sure this kind of season doesn't repeat itself next year.
"It's given me a drive that whatever I do over the summer and during the offseason, I'm going to do to the best of my ability and I'm going to make sure my teammates work just as hard.''
STEEP LEARNING CURVE: Like many of his teammates, sophomore linebacker Taiwan Jones is familiar with being in a playoff setting and a must-win situation.
While there will be a lot of pressure surrounding MSU's bid to gain its sixth win to become bowl eligible on Saturday, Jones, a co-starter at STAR linebacker with senior Chris Norman, said he's not nervous about the game because he experienced the same type of situation during his prep career at Anchor Bay.
"I'm just really excited about it,'' said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound New Baltimore native. "During high school, my high school wasn't really that good, so this is like the same thing (that happened) my senior year. We went to the playoffs for the first time in like six years and we were just fighting and fighting to stay alive. So I enjoy games like this because it makes you a better person, a better teammate and it makes you a better team.''
That being said, win or lose, Jones said this season, because of all of the adversity that accompanies five losses by a total of 13 points, has been a great learning experience going forward.
And he said, going to a bowl game will only make him and MSU a much stronger team next season.
"One of the main things I've learned is how to deal with adversity, how not to give up, how to stay encouraged and stay together as a team because at the end of the day we have each other and we play for each other.''
All of that has helped Jones improve his stock as a player.
After being the only true freshman last season to play on either defense or offense, Jones has improved his output significantly from last season to this one.
Last season, he finished with 18 tackles, a half sack and a pass breakup after appearing in all 14 games.
Entering the Minnesota game, he has 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, including one sack and three pass breakups.
"The biggest learning curve has been going from week to week, learning different assignments and knowing everything changes up involving your reads. It was about putting in the extra work and talking with other teammates such as Max Bullough, and Denicos (Allen) and Chris (Norman) have been helping me out as well. They basically told me to slow down and have fun because I was putting too much pressure on myself.''
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT: Lost in the shuffle of the controversy that surrounded MSU's 28-24 loss to Nebraska were two very good runs by sophomore running back Nick Hill in the second half.
With Le'Veon Bell on the bench getting a breather after a 26-yard run during the Spartans' first drive of third quarter, Hill stepped in on a 1-and-10 play at the Nebraska 38 and gained nine yards. On the next play, a 2nd-and-1, Hill followed up with a 21-yard burst that got MSU to the Cornhuskers 8-yard line.
"It was just the flow of the game. The offense was moving the ball well and I came in off a big run Le'Veon had so the two runs I had were just to keep the ball moving. The first one was out of the shotgun and on the other one we ran power to the left. The guys did a great job up front getting to their man and sealing off the guys but I just tried to get what I could get.''
While the 30 yards on the two plays may not have seemed strange for the speedy change-of-pace runner, it was how he carved out the yards that brought the most attention.
Not only did he run between the tackles but he ran hard in traffic, pinballing off potential tacklers, to gain extra yardage after contact.
"Two for 30 (yards) is not bad at all and I did feel pretty good about it but I just looked at it as I did my job helping the offense move the ball into great field position inside the 20. To me that was the biggest gain, that we got the ball down into the redzone.''
A good sign for a Spartan backfield that will begin next season without Larry Caper, who will be lost to graduation, and may be without Bell, who may decide to forego his senior season for a shot at the NFL.
"I don't look at it as an audition (for next season), I just look at it as an opportunity to go out there and get better and evaluate myself each and every game,'' said Hill, who scored his first career touchdown against Central Michigan back on Sept. 8th. "What I did wrong in the pass pro, what I did right in the pass pro. But I prepare everyday like I'm a starter because you never know. If somebody goes down, I could be in. So I'm just always trying to be prepared and on my toes so when the opportunity comes, I've can go out there and make plays.''
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