Restock and Reinforce: Michigan State is building a playoff contender in what was supposed to be a down year

Michigan State was supposed to be in a down year. Then the Spartans beat Notre Dame to prove why they are a playoff contender again.
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As midnight came and went and Michigan State's players trundled to buses idling just north of Notre Dame Stadium, their 36–28 victory was being celebrated in very Michigan State ways. There was discussion of chips on shoulders. Hard work and toughness made compulsory appearances. The group wasn't favored to win against the Fighting Irish on Saturday evening and won anyway, a fact that was duly noted and sneered at. It was easy to nod and follow the platitudes. But it all felt just a little disingenuous, too, as if the Spartans were talking this way because this is how everyone expects them to talk, because this is how everyone is conditioned to talk about them.

What's the better way to describe what Michigan State is doing this fall, then? Maybe it's neither rebuilding nor reloading as much as something in between: A remodeling. It's a restoration to an earlier state that is not as comprehensive or costly as a total tear-down, though it probably will be slightly more time-intensive than plugging in fresh parts to achieve the same aesthetic instantly. If the Spartans aren't quite yet convincing as a potential Big Ten champion and College Football Playoff participant, both of which they were just months ago, the material is there to suggest it is a possibility, given time.

If Michigan State in 2016 is an HGTV show, there likely isn't any asbestos in the walls or sewer pipes that don't meet code. But that doesn't mean a finished product is achievable in a day, or even a month. "We have good football players and we have a good team," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "So we've got to form an identity as we move forward."

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These were the almost inaudible, seemingly throwaway, last-question-of-the-night remarks from Dantonio late Saturday, but they might have been the most lucid and accurate. Michigan State is good, again, right now. Dantonio's program is beyond playing the long game now. Some contributors will be developmental talents, of course, but the Spartans signed 24 four- or five-star prospects in their last three recruiting hauls. They'll be able to rely on sheer ability as much as moxie amassed over time, and that should accelerate the development of the team year to year.

Consider the mix from the Notre Dame game: Gerald Holmes, a junior and former three-star prospect, contributed a 73-yard touchdown … but sophomore and former four-star recruit L.J. Scott was the primary workhorse with 22 carries and 98 yards. Senior receiver R.J. Shelton was the most reliable target with eight catches … but true freshman Donnie Corley, a four-star talent and top 100 recruit provided a spectacular catch for a touchdown by literally wrestling the ball away from Notre Dame's Cole Luke before he landed.

On defense? Sophomore linebacker Andrew Dowell (four-star recruit) was the second-leading tackler and recorded a sack; junior defensive lineman Malik McDowell (five-star recruit) was impossible to handle; and redshirt freshman defensive end Raequan Williams (four-star recruit) sacked Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer on what turned out to be the Fighting Irish's last-gasp, last-chance third-down play in the fourth quarter.


Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via AP

There's something in the DNA of Michigan State now where players rise the occasion, for the most part. (If you can mind-wipe Dec. 31, 2015 against Alabama from your memory, at any rate.) There's also something to Michigan State having abundant raw talent that allows for the rising in the first place. "You know when your time comes," Shelton said after the game, "you have to step up for this program and this team because you want this team to get to the Big Ten championship, to win the east, to go to the national championship. Because this program deserves that."

So that's a long way of saying there isn't as much patience required within the program before a given player can contribute. But Michigan State still needs some time to gestate and evolve into a team that decisively looks championship-worthy.

Or at least this version of Michigan State does. It doesn't appear to be at plug-and-play levels everywhere. While quarterback Tyler O'Connor looks capable, he's not exactly a big-throw weapon just yet: Though he ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency (183.4), that's on just 44 total attempts. He likely has to become more reliably threatening as a passer, and more game action should help there. And the offensive line that paved the way for 260 yards rushing on Saturday was a question mark only two weeks earlier in a lackluster opener against Furman. "We had a little extra time to work, and when you don't play well, and people sort of write you off a little bit, you have a tendency to rise up a little bit," Dantonio said. "I think that's what we did."

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The Spartans can go from rough edges to finished product quicker because of the natural ability walking through the building each day, but there's inarguably spot work to be done in between. In that way the season sets up auspiciously: They should be favored in every game, starting Saturday against Wisconsin, all the way to a colossal Oct. 29 showdown with Michigan. (Though that Oct. 22 trip to Maryland just screams look-ahead game and could get tricky.) Michigan State probably does not have to be performing at a championship-level clip to win all the way to that rivalry clash. It can refine all the areas in which it has been dominant and then it still has time, and probably a margin for error, to grow out of inconsistencies or shortcomings. "You don't develop an identity in two games," O'Connor said.

Until it forms, yes, the old standards of Michigan State can fill the gaps. The Spartans clearly were the tougher and better-motivated team at Notre Dame, whatever faults or inexperience they were still working through. "We're going to come hit you in the mouth," Shelton said. "We're a physical football team and we're going to show it. We don't worry about anyone else but us." That's the sort of comment that could've been drawn from any year of the Dantonio Era. And Michigan State can continue to talk about itself that way while we acknowledge that it hardly tells a complete story. There's no rebuilding anymore when the Spartans lose a quarterback, the two best offensive linemen, a playmaking defensive end, and more from last year's Big Ten title team. The program is stocked well enough that it just needs a little time to do some refurbishing. After that, the success comes, and not only because they're some gritty, hard-working upstart bunch. It's mostly that they're just really good at football.

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On Saturday, before the first road test of his nascent career, a night game before 80,000 predominantly hostile and deeply soused voices, Corley required no pep talk. The soft-spoken freshman said he didn't need veterans in his ear to soothe his anxiety or realign his perspective. Standing in a hallway, in fact, he toted a to-go bag of postgame chow and more or less shrugged off what he and his team had just done.

Practice is harder than games, the 6' 2" wideout from Detroit insisted. Games are easy by comparison. So what was there to worry about when the lights came on?

"I'm a very calm guy, man," Corley said. "I just do what the coach tells me to do and it'll all play out."

It's just a matter of time. And given the talent on Michigan State's roster, probably less time than ever before.