November 23, 2012

For Spartans, it's win or stay home

EAST LANSING - There's really not much to say.

In a season that has become more about surviving disappointment than celebrating success, the Michigan State football team is down to its last bullet in the chamber.

And in what has become the equivalent of a one-game playoff, the Spartans (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) are in a win-or-go-home scenario when they face Minnesota (6-5, 2-5) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Minneapolis, Minn.

The Spartans must defeat the Golden Gophers, a program MSU holds a 27-17 overall record against - including an 11-11 mark in games played at Minneapolis - in order to become bowl eligible.

With five losses by a total of 13 points hanging over their collective heads, the Spartans must somehow find a way to bury the effects of what has become a failed season considering the expectations that accompanied a 2012 campaign built on two previous 11-win finishes.

In an effort to make sure his team was in the proper frame for its last Big Ten showdown, sixth-year head coach Mark Dantonio stepped a bit outside of his comfort zone by stepping up the positive and confident talk during his weekly press conference.

While on other occasions, Dantonio had been subdued, in some respects, about his team's chances, this week he was more about what his team will do instead of what his can do.

Of course, in this case, it's what the Spartans must do in order to secure what is expected to be an invite to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Arizona.

"I think it's a program game for us, no question about that,'' Dantonio said. "Sometimes (when) you have your goals in mind, you have to reevaluate your goals as you move forward. Right now our goal is to get to a bowl game.''

And Dantonio knows in order to accomplish that goal, the Spartans can't fall into the same habits that resulted in those five losses and transformed a season of promise into one of desperation.

"We've lost a lot of close games,'' Dantonio said. "I think that's been documented. But we have to make plays at the end of the game to win those games."

For MSU, the ability to make plays all game will be crucial to their chances against Minnesota but while some may think it's the extra practices a program gets with a bowl invitation that is the driving force behind the Spartans getting bowl eligible, Dantonio has a different take - it's about keeping the streak of consecutive bowl appearances intact.

"Without question for me, it's keeping the bowl streak alive, going to six straight bowls,'' Dantonio said. "In a tough year where you've lost some tough games very close, to be able to continue to respond, get over the hump a little bit, (and have the) opportunity to play in a bowl game against a great opponent, those are the things that are important.''

In order to make that happen, MSU will have to beat a Gopher team that not only became bowl eligible - for the first time since 2009 - after winning it sixth game against Illinois on Nov. 10th but will also be celebrating the departure of 15 seniors, which includes quarterback and wide receiver MarQueis Gray.

Gray, who started the first three games at QB and has been a thorn in the Spartans side for most of his time in the Twin Cities, is listed back at wide receiver after his nearly 300-yard and three touchdown performance at quarterback that almost beat MSU last season.

The Spartans eventually came back to win that contest 31-24 but probably can't afford to get far behind a Gopher team that beat MSU 42-34 the last time the Spartans visited TCF Bank Stadium back in 2009.

Leading the way for this year's Gopher team at quarterback will be true freshman Philip Nelson, who started just his fifth career game last week in a 38-14 loss to Nebraska.

By earning the starting duties five weeks ago, Nelson made Minnesota one of just eight schools that has started at least three different QBs this season.

While Nelson is listed as the starter, sophomore Max Shortell is still the stats leader at QB with 822 yards and six TDs.

Nelson enters Saturday's play with 674 yards passing and six TDs, against four interceptions in his five outings.

"They have a dynamic player with Gray (that) they can use at wide receiver or quarterback,'' Dantonio said. "(And) they have a freshman quarterback that I think is going to be a very good player.''

The Gophers are stable at running back with redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood leading the way with 830 yards, five TDs and a 4.4 yards a carry average.

Junior A.J. Barker was the top pass-catching threat with 577 yards and seven scores, but Barker, who was averaging nearly 20 yards a catch, quit the team last Sunday. That leaves sophomore Isaac Fruechte as Minnesota's next highest receiving threat at 19 catches for 256 yards and two TDs.

Up front, the Gophers are led by a young offensive line that includes four sophomores and a freshman.

Minnesota's offense averages 22.4 points a game and 337.6 yards a contest.

With junior linebacker Max Bullough and his team-leading 95 tackles leading the way, MSU's defense will have to slow a Gopher offense that may not be as prolific as others they've faced in the Big Ten but has been steady and consistent for much of the season despite the upheavals at quarterback.

MSU's offense which is led by the 1,382 yards and 10 TDs collected by junior running back Le'veon Bell on the ground and junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell's 2,435 yards and 12 TDs through the air, needs to play mistake-free ball.

Sophomore wideout Keith Mumphery is MSU's top pass catcher at 506 yards and one score.

Expected to try and slow the Spartans offense will be a Minnesota defense that is led by senior cornerback and kick returner Troy Stoudermire.

Stoudermire heads a Gopher defense that is giving up nearly 350 yards of total offense and 23.7 points a game but is third in the Big Ten in pass defense efficiency and fourth in the league in interceptions with nine.

Senior defensive end DL Wilhite leads the team in tackles for loss with 10, while senior middle linebacker Mike Rallis is the team's second-leading tackler with 65 on a defense that boasts six players with 50 or more tackles this season.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

FROM MSU:
The Spartans need to get the lead early, extend that lead and put themselves in a comfortable position where the outcome of the game doesn't come down to one or two crucial plays at the end.

FROM MINNESOTA: All the Gophers have to do is maintain the solid overall level of play that has helped them find success all season. Although Minnesota doesn't do anything spectacular, they are very good when just playing consistent, mistake-free football.

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