EAST LANSING, Mich. - Despite a disappointing .500 record, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio thinks his program's future is just fine.
The Spartans (5-5, 2-4 Big Ten) can still play in their sixth straight bowl with one more win and would love to send the seniors off with 36 victories by winning three more times, starting with Saturday's senior day visit from Northwestern.
"One of the toughest things as a senior is if you come out flat in your last game at home," Dantonio said Tuesday. "You can't be too saddened by the experience so you're not ready to play. It's an opportunity to showcase your talents one more time in Spartan Stadium in front of your family and friends. Our guys will be ready to play, no question."
Fresh from a bye week, Michigan State knows it will have to finish stronger than it has in four conference losses by a total of 10 points, the same late-game problem that has affected the Wildcats (7-3, 3-3), losers of three games that they led by double digits in the fourth quarter.
"We started working on them last Tuesday and got a little done in advance," Dantonio said of Northwestern's explosive option offense, one that can switch quarterbacks and quickly pose a top passing attack. "We had an advantage in that respect. We also healed up. And we could step back a little and refocus and regenerate our enthusiasm. We needed to do that."
The Spartans need to find the magic that helped them win eight games by eight points or less in back-to-back 11-win seasons. A small-but-successful senior class could be the key to making that happen, with just five potential starters running through the tunnel for the final time — perhaps part of the problem this year.
Left guard Chris McDonald, defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White, outside linebacker Chris Norman, cornerback johnny Adams and placekicker Dan Conroy are the seniors who have played the most this year. But Dantonio mentioned other veterans like running back Larry Caper, who earned a permanent place in Michigan State lore with a game-winning run against Michigan as a freshman in 2009.
"When you get to your last couple of games and have a bowl opportunity your senior year, time is precious," Dantonio said. "I think all of our seniors right now look at where they're at, the expectations and what they want to accomplish. That's tough to do sometimes. We have two weeks left that are guaranteed for us. We need to make the best of those, come out of it 7-5 and have a good feeling about this football team."
Dantonio wouldn't comment on the potential for a significant number of no-shows with no championship on the line this season. But he did express a great deal of admiration for Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who has faced the Spartans as a two-time All-American linebacker, a champion as a player and an assistant and a successful head coach whose team became bowl eligible more than a month ago.
"I think the trademark of Pat's teams is they play with a great amount of toughness and effort and are always moving forward," Dantonio said. "They're always playing for the next play and are very positive. I have a lot of respect for the way they play and what they've been able to accomplish."
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