EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State used to be one of the best at the end of games, making plays on both sides of the ball and special teams to win in the closing moments.
The Spartans won a lot of games that way, including 36 the previous three seasons.
“What we have been able to do really in the last number of years is and it’s exactly what I told our football team, ‘We’ve won those fourth quarters. We’ve won the games at the end of the game. We’ve closed games out,'” Dantonio said Tuesday. “That’s what we have to return to.”
Dantonio, his staff and their players have to figure it out fast or else a team that started the season ranked No. 12 could be the first Michigan State squad to not earn a bowl invitation since 2006 when John L. Smith’s last team went 4-8 with a pair of four-game skids. Smith was fired and Dantonio was hired, coming back to the school where he was one of Nick Saban’s assistants.
The Spartans (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) are losing these days because problems in the fourth quarter. That has triggered a skid that matches the total number of setbacks the program had the previous three years when it ended seasons at the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl and in the College Football Playoff. They have lost five straight for the first time since opening the 1991 season 0-5 and are one loss away from their longest skid since starting 0-7 in 1982.
Michigan State’s misery is not expected to win anytime soon: Rival and second-ranked Michigan (7-0, 4-0) is favored to win by more than three touchdowns at Spartan Stadium on Saturday.
Dantonio, though, is sounding confident about his team’s chances after beating the Wolverines in seven of the last eight meetings.
“Can we win? Yeah, we can win,” he told reporters at his news conference. “I firmly believe that. I know none of you do, but that’s why I’m coaching.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh knows he has to be ready for anything against a gambling coach, who has found ways to win ranging from returning a punter’s fumble on the last play last year at Michigan Stadium to trick plays to even a Hail Mary.
“He’s one of the best,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve known him for years. You have to make your preparations accordingly.”
If Michigan State doesn’t fare better in the fourth, it’s difficult to envision a win against anyone, especially the surging Wolverines or No. 6 Ohio State next month at home.
The Spartans have not come back to win any of the three games in which they trailed after the third quarter. With a lead after three quarters, they’re just 2-2.
And, problems in the final quarter have been there right from the start.
Michigan State didn’t outscore Furman in a lackluster, season-opening 28-13 victory. In their biggest win of the year against Notre Dame, the Spartans were outscored 14-0 in the fourth but held on for an eight-point victory. A scoreless fourth seemed to be a merciful end to a 30-6 loss to Wisconsin. Indiana outscored Michigan State 14-7 to close out regulation, forcing overtime and leading to a 24-21 win. BYU turned a close game into 31-14 victory by outscoring the home team 21-7 in the final quarter.
Northwestern outscored Michigan State 14-9 to close out a 54-40 win. And perhaps in the most embarrassing loss this season, Maryland blanked Michigan State 14-0 last week to win 28-17.
“It’s just as simple as not getting locked in the entire game, getting lazy, or whatever you want to call it, but that’s not Spartan football,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We’re doing everything we can to get back to our roots and what got us to the point that we have been in previous years.”