EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Michigan State is heading to a bowl regardless of this weekend's result, so the Spartans have to look for other reasons to stay motivated.
''Coach D's been saying all week: `Flip it.' That's been his thing,'' linebacker Chris Frey said.
What Frey was referring to Tuesday is No. 21 Michigan State's opportunity to reverse its 3-9 record from a season ago. A win at Rutgers on Saturday would improve the Spartans to 9-3, a symmetry that has not been lost on coach Mark Dantonio and his team.
''We flipped 3-8 to 8-3. It's rewarding to see that, to see there's something that all your hard work comes to fruition and all the things you talk about and go through as a group, you see that sort of move forward. I think that's exciting for any program at any point in time,'' Dantonio said. ''That's something that we can point to ... a little bit of a life moment, a challenge for all of us as we move forward.''
Michigan State's fall last season was sudden, and it's not a huge surprise that Dantonio's program was able to rebound, but a young roster wasn't necessarily expected to improve this quickly. Bowl eligibility would have been a sign of progress, and the Spartans (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 16 CFP) secured that a month ago. Michigan State even emerged as a conference title contender, although a 48-3 loss at Ohio State two weekends ago halted that bid.
The Spartans beat Maryland 17-7 on a rainy, snowy day last weekend, and they are double-digit favorites against Rutgers (4-7, 3-5). It's quite a change from where Michigan State was a year ago, when the end of the season seemed almost merciful.
''Last year at this time, we were playing our last game and then we had to wait nine months,'' Frey said. ''Just to be able to have one more game after this and be able to have the opportunity to get 15 extra practices in for bowl games is huge for this team.''
Rutgers was one of the few teams Michigan State beat in 2016. The Spartans routed the Scarlet Knights 49-0 in November to snap a seven-game losing streak. Rutgers has performed better this season, and if Michigan State's offense sputters, the Spartans could be vulnerable.
''As I told our football team yesterday, we've come so far, be ready to play,'' said Dantonio, who has won three Big Ten titles at Michigan State. ''Doesn't guarantee winning, but be ready to play mentally and emotionally. Expect to play well, get yourself right. This is a program game. You don't want to take any shine, as I said earlier, off of this season. We want to go into the bowl season like this going forward.''
That term - ''program game'' - seems more suited to big rivalries or games with championship implications, but Dantonio described last weekend's matchup with Maryland in much the same way. After last year, the Spartans can't take any victories for granted, and the chance to finish with nine wins in the regular season feels unusually significant.
''I think sometimes you have to go to those depths to find yourself a little bit, to reach down. I think that's happened with our football team. That's happened with every team that we've had like that. The 2009 team went through some things and bounced back in '10. The 2012 team lost some close games, bounced back in '13,'' Dantonio said. ''I think people sort of find themselves. They really look at themselves a lot harder sometimes when they're not successful.''
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