Spartans, not Gophers, still not bowl eligible

Michigan State’s season hasn’t played out the way the Spartans,

or any of their opponents, expected.

The last reminder of this not-so-awesome autumn will occur

Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, where already-bowl-eligible Minnesota

will greet them.

Yes, one of the conference’s two worst teams of the last two

years reached six wins two weeks ago, while one of the Big Ten’s

best two squads over the last two seasons arrived at the final game

on the schedule still unsure whether there’ll be another one.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, for his part, sounded sure. He

issued the victory guarantee that college football coaches so

rarely utter in this hyper-competitive, heavily scrutinized

environment.

”The glass is half full. It’s not half empty,” Dantonio said,

in response to a reporter’s question about moral support he’s

received from basketball coach Tom Izzo. ”When we win Saturday –

I’ll say `when’ – we’ll be a 6-6 football team. We’re not climbing

out of the cellar 2-10. I think everybody needs to understand

that.”

There is still a scenario in which the Spartans (5-6, 2-5) could

land in a bowl game if they lose, since the NCAA has guidelines for

considering five-win teams if there aren’t enough with six to fill

all 70 slots. Entering this week, there were 61 qualifiers and 16

candidates left. But a guessing game is one they’d rather not play.

So they’re behind their determined coach.

”It means a lot that he has that kind of confidence in us. We

have that kind of confidence in ourselves,” quarterback Andrew

Maxwell said. ”We do realize it’s the inches and the details that

have put us in the position that we’re in. We’re in a playoff right

now. It’s win or go home. I think now is the week we need to find

the inches, find the details, truly pay attention to them. I think

everybody is buying in.”

The Spartans had several key players from their last two teams

that won 11 games apiece use up their eligibility, with Kirk

Cousins, B.J. Cunningham and Jerel Worthy among the notably

departed. They began the season 13th in the Associated Press

rankings and showed some grit with an opening win against then-No.

24 Boise State, and though the post-Cousins passing attack has

sputtered often, their level of competitiveness hasn’t slipped at

all.

That finishing touch they’ve had the last two years has been

missing, though, in too many of their performances. Five losses in

Big Ten play, by a total of 13 points to Ohio State, Iowa,

Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern, are about all one needs to

know about this team.

”We just kind of need to go back to work, go back to putting

our nose to the grindstone, take that workmanlike attitude,

obviously finishing this season out, hopefully getting the sixth

win this Saturday, then taking it into the offseason, winter

conditioning, spring ball, realizing how hard it is,” Maxwell

said. ”Success doesn’t come easy. It mainly comes to those who

truly want it and truly understand the challenges that are ahead of

them.”

The Gophers (6-5, 2-5) have certainly enjoyed more satisfaction

this year after winning a total of six games the last two seasons,

but their lopsided losses to Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska

have served as humbling signs that there’s arduous work left to

lift this program to the conference’s upper level.

This will be the last game at TCF Bank Stadium for 15 seniors,

including wide receiver MarQueis Gray, whose turn as the starting

quarterback didn’t go as well as he hoped, just like his entire

career.

”I’ve done a lot of things here, been through a lot, overcame a

lot and now it’s almost my time to leave it alone,” Gray said.

”But I’m truly going to miss this place, my teammates, that

stadium and all the fans.”

Gray is one of the few players on this team who participated in

the 2009 Insight Bowl, the last time the Gophers extended their

season.

”Once the guys get down there, to wherever we’re going, they’re

going to fall in love being treated the way they’ve been treated,”

Gray said. ”Going out there and playing on a national stage, I

feel like it’s going to leave a taste in their mouth and a hunger

for them to get back there as years go on.”

Linebacker Mike Rallis expressed the same, holding out a

long-shot hope of being picked for the Jan. 1 Taxslayer.com Gator

Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 29

in Tempe, Ariz., which is the former Insight Bowl, or the Meineke

Car Care of Texas Bowl in Houston on Dec. 28 are the more-likely

options.

”I’m excited for the program. I’m glad I got to be a part of

the beginning of what hopefully turns this thing around and gets it

going to where it’s a consistently great program, but we’ve got to

finish it if we want to do that,” Rallis said.

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