EAST LANSING, Mich. – For the first time this season, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has had to rally his team after a loss.
The Spartans were perfect for eight games, climbing as high as No. 5 before falling 37-6 at Iowa last weekend. The loss dropped Michigan State all the way to No. 16, but Dantonio's team still has a chance to finish atop the Big Ten.
"We need to regroup," Dantonio said. "The sky is not falling. You know, we are in good shape."
After back-to-back games on the road, the Spartans (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) return home for two games they are expected to win. Minnesota (1-8, 0-5) arrives Saturday on an eight-game losing streak and with an interim coach, and then, after a week off, Michigan State hosts Purdue before wrapping up the regular season at Penn State.
The Spartans are one of four teams in the Big Ten with one conference loss, and some tiebreakers would work out better than others for them if there's a deadlock in the end. All they can do is try to win their remaining three games and see what happens.
"That's what the focus has been this week, is making sure we're ready to go more mentally," linebacker Greg Jones said. "I think physically we were ready (against Iowa), I just think mentally we weren't there. So it's important to get back to that this week."
Kirk Cousins is completing over 67 percent of his passes on the season, but against Iowa he threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. The Spartans were also held to only 31 yards rushing — that from a ground game that is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
Of course, Minnesota would love to have Michigan State's problems right now. Coach Tim Brewster was fired last month, and defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey has been suspended for the game against Michigan State.
"I think it's a tough stretch obviously we are in," interim coach Jeff Horton said. "Losing this many games in a row is not fun, it is not easy, and it tests you as a person. And you have to keep marching on and moving forward, starting with me as a head coach for that."
Only two of Minnesota's losses have been by single digits and one of those was against South Dakota, an FCS team. Quarterback Adam Weber has thrown for 17 touchdowns, but that's been largely in vain. He was sacked five times by Ohio State.
"I'm fine. I've been through worse," Weber said. "I know fans feel frustrated, but nobody is more frustrated than the players."
Michigan State will try to add more frustration this weekend. After an impressive performance against Illinois in a 26-6 win, the Spartans gave up 27 points in a victory over Northwestern and then were blown out by Iowa. The defense in particular could use a strong performance Saturday in a game Michigan State is favored to win by more than three touchdowns.
"I'm trying to get back to basics (with my teammates) a little bit, some things we should have done better," Jones said. "Just tackling better, obviously, when you're on defense. As a team, making sure our chemistry is ready and ready to go, and making sure every guy is out there having fun."
For the first eight games, having fun wasn't much of a problem for the Spartans. They overcame adversity when Dantonio was hospitalized because of a mild heart attack, and they won close games against Notre Dame and Northwestern to keep the streak alive.
That run is over now, but the Spartans are determined not to let one loss spoil everything they've accomplished.
"After that football game, our players, they have something to prove," Dantonio said. "We'll be ready. We pride ourselves on that."