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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