If a 4-0 start and a two-game losing streak is all new to the Maryland football team under first-year coach DJ Durkin, a 2-4 record and a four-game losing streak is also a rarity for Michigan State, especially since Mark Dantonio took over a decade ago.
Yet his team’s month-long struggles coming into Maryland Stadium Saturday night don’t totally shock Dantonio, despite the Spartans starting 2016 ranked No. 12 in the country. They were considered a contender in the Big Ten East with Ohio State and Michigan.
“Bad things are going to happen,” Dantonio said during his Tuesday news conference in East Lansing, Mich. “That's going to be a part of your life. Everybody goes through struggles. All you got to do is turn on the TV, whether you're watching sports or whether you're watching something else, people have to handle problems. So that's our mindset. That's what we have to do, and that's what we will do.”
With its goal of a Big Ten championship now a longshot, Michigan State knows it needs to beat the Terps in College Park to even keep alive its bowl aspirations. After Maryland, the Spartans host Michigan a week from Saturday. They also play Ohio State at home and Penn State on the road during the last two weeks of the season.
Asked if he mentions the current nine-year bowl streak his program currently has as motivation, Dantonio said, “I think absolutely it is. It's something we've done every year. We've sort of taken it for granted. I don't think you can obviously take things for granted right now. We're a 2-4 football team. Again, we've got to find the inches. We've been able to do that.”
Dantonio made references to 2009, his only losing season (6-7 after losing the last two ) since going to Michigan State in 2007, as well as 2012, when the Spartans won their last games and needed a one-point bowl win over TCU to climb over .500 at 7-6.
Since then, Michigan State had gone 38-5 overall and 22-2 in the Big Ten until the four-game losing streak. The Spartans had reached the BCS semifinals last season, losing to Alabama.
“I've been there before,” said Dantonio, who had only one other losing season as a head coach, going 4-7 at Cincinnati in 2005. “Hopefully won't be there again, but who knows. But I think everybody goes through these things at some point, whether it's an injury that sets you back or whether you lose a game that sets you back, whether you don't quite play as well, somebody else takes over your position for a short time, whatever it is.”
There have been a number of reasons for the slide.
Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, who took over for Connor Cook this season, threw three interceptions in a 30-6 loss to Wisconsin that started the losing streak, was benched in favor in freshman Brian Lewerke last week against Northwestern and returned to the lineup in the second half after Lewerke struggled.
Junior nose tackle Malik McDowell has been double-teamed for much of the season. His 11 tackles against Northwestern were by far the most he had made this season for a team that has sacked opposing quarterbacks just once, worst in the Big Ten.
The Spartans rank last in rushing in the Big Ten (136.2), ahead of only Rutgers in scoring offense (25.2 points a game), Northwestern in pass defense (229.7) and Purdue in third-down defense conversion (46.7 percent); ahead of only Rutgers and Purdue in scoring defense (30 points a game).
Long characterized as a coach with a chip on his shoulder whose teams play the same way, Dantonio said, “We need to assume that that chip is not there and put it there, I guess, if that's the case. Always sort of thought that we challenged each other, challenged ourselves individually to be our very best at game time. That needs to come out again. But it has to be results oriented, too.”
As for what Dantonio expects from Maryland, he said that Durkin’s team is playing with the same aggressive style that Michigan did last season when Durkin was the defensive coordinator of the Wolverines. Dantonio is fully aware of the uncertainty surrounding Maryland's own quarterback situation.
"They've not thrown the ball as effectively, probably, as they wanted to due to injuries, freshman quarterback [Tyrrelll Pigrome], a little bit,” Dantonio said. “They have the makings of a good football team, they will play hard, will play hard. That will be our challenge, to play hard and get ourselves mentally ready to go.”