EAST LANSING, Mich. — Getting to the top is one thing. Staying there is something entirely different and more challenging.
That’s what the Michigan State football team is experiencing right now: a case of greatness growing pains.
The Spartans are coming off back-to-back 11-victory seasons and were ranked No. 13 in the preseason Associated Press poll. But they dropped out of that poll this week, after barely surviving an Indiana team that has lost 10 consecutive Big Ten games.
Strange things have happened on the Spartans’ way to their dream game in Pasadena, Calif.:
• Notre Dame slammed the door in their faces;
• Ohio State also beat them at home;
• and they had to rally to beat both Eastern Michigan and the Hoosiers.
The defense has turned out to be good but not great. The running game, even with Le’Veon Bell, has been turned away in the two losses and to some extent in other games. The passing game was AWOL to start but is showing signs of coming together.
As a whole, the Spartans are learning much about what it takes to be great.
“It’s a lot more difficult to stay there,” junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. “You have to really guard against complacency.
“Nobody said we could throw our helmets out there and win 11 games.”
No, but the Spartans did seem to buy into the early hype. Coach Mark Dantonio calls it “drinking the Kool-Aid” — the mass consumption of compliments that inflates egos but gets you nothing on Saturdays.
“It’s difficult to stay on top,” he said. “There’s no question about that. People pump you up, but you have to play the games.
“And you are never as bad as people say, and never as good as people say.”
Dantonio noted that his team’s only losses have come against undefeated teams. He also tossed in how conference “parity” adds to the challenge while “games are decided by inches.”
The bottom line is the bottom line, though, and Dantonio realizes there’s no avoiding that.
His team is losing the tug-of-war with greatness, but still has a shot at the Rose Bowl because nobody in the conference looks that great. The only Big Ten schools in the AP poll are No. 8 Ohio State, which is ineligible for postseason play, and No. 25 Michigan.
State is 4-2 headed into Saturday’s home game with Iowa, and has scrambled to pull out victories against poor and mediocre teams. The combined record of its conquered opponents — No. 24 Boise State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Indiana — is 8-12.
“We’re in a little storm,” Dantonio said. “We need to play through the storm.”
After falling into a 17-0 hole, State did that last Saturday against an Indiana team it beat 55-3 last season.
The Spartans found themselves getting called out as a group by their coach before the beginning of the second quarter. It wasn’t as if their lives were passing before them, but the season definitely was.
Dantonio couldn’t recall what he said Saturday, but Maxwell does:
“He just said, ‘Look around. We’ve got to realize the reality of the situation.’
“So I think everybody had to look inside themselves and had to look around. And we had to decide right then and there what kind of team we were going to be.”
That afternoon, they were a team that rallied for a 31-27 victory.
The defense finally put up its wall, and freshman receiver Aaron Burbridge broke out in a big way. The Farmington Harrison (Mich.) star caught eight passes for 134 yards and sparked the comeback by clicking with Maxwell.
“He made some great catches with people grabbing on him,” Dantonio said.
Maxwell added: “They were tough plays he made. It’s what we were expecting from him.”
That’s also what the whole team strives for: playing up to lofty expectations.
Hunger must remain insatiable, and drive can’t afford to drop into neutral. Those challenges are what separate the great from the simply good.
The Spartans are about to find out if they’re up to the challenge.
Versatile tight end Dion Sims sprained an ankle against the Hoosiers and likely won’t be back until the Oct. 20 game at Michigan.
Either Andrew Gleichert of Ann Arbor Huron (Mich.) or Paul Lang will start, but Dantonio said that fullback-defensive end Lawrence Thomas (four catches, 35 yards) could make an impact at tight end.
“He’s a guy similar to Dion in a lot of respects,” Dantonio said of Thomas.
… College Football Hall of Fame coaches Clarence “Biggie” Munn (54-9-2, 1947-53) and Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty (109-69-5, 1954-72) will have their names added to the Spartan Stadium “Ring of Fame” before Saturday’s game.
Munn won two national championships and was 27-1 in his final three seasons. Daugherty claimed four national titles and recruited players such as Bubba Smith, George Webster and Earl Morrall.