November 09, 2016

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) After this season is over, Mark Dantonio will have plenty of time to take stock of everything that went wrong for his Michigan State team in 2016.

At this point, the Spartans are still trying to salvage something from these last few games.

''It's sort of like a broken record up here. You keep talking about what we continue to talk about every single week. My main focus this week with our football team is: Everybody has a future,'' Dantonio said Tuesday. ''You have a future and you can go in either direction. It's your choice as a football player and as a person which direction you go in.''

The Spartans have lost seven games in a row, an unthinkable stretch for a team that won the Big Ten and reached the national semifinals a season ago. Its bowl hopes all but gone, Michigan State must try to make the most of its final three games of the regular season before beginning an offseason that is sure to include plenty of soul searching.

This weekend, the Spartans (2-7, 0-6) host Rutgers (2-7, 0-6) in a matchup of the last two winless teams in Big Ten play.

''It's amazing when you really take it into context where we're at right now compared to where we were at last year,'' said Dantonio, who is in his 10th season as Michigan State's coach. ''But that's reality and reality sets in on you.''

Last weekend's loss to Illinois closed the door almost completely on a postseason berth. The Spartans have no chance to play in a bowl unless sub-.500 teams are needed to fill open spots. Dantonio said he had ''a town hall meeting'' with each position group to help foster communication and identify problems.

''It went pretty good. Had a chance to open up with the coaches, which we don't really do much, just because we're always strict on game plan and getting ready for an opponent,'' running back Gerald Holmes said. ''Whatever we had left on our chest or coaches had left on their chest, it was probably the right time to do it.''

Sometimes, when a team is in the middle of a losing season, it can take some solace in the performance of younger players and build for the future. The Spartans would certainly welcome any encouraging signs right now, but redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke - the youngest of the three quarterbacks who have played significant snaps this season - is out for the season with a broken leg.

Missing a bowl would mean less practice time for Michigan State's younger players, because there would be no postseason to prepare for. That means there's a bit of urgency for the Spartans to take advantage of the games and practices they have left.

But even if Michigan State plays better down the stretch, the disappointment from this season is likely to linger. A small decline would have been reasonable after last year's accomplishments, but the Spartans are in danger of finishing in last place.

''These things are growing pains that we go through sometimes,'' Dantonio said. ''I wish these growing pains maybe would have occurred earlier. What's troubling is that these occur in your 10th year.''

After two Big Ten titles in the past three seasons, this has been a startling year for Dantonio and his players.

''It definitely is just a different feeling just because we've been so successful in the past,'' said offensive lineman Benny McGowan, a senior. ''I've been a part of some great teams here, and I just think this year that we just fell short.''

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