The Michigan State football team needs this bowl game, if for no other reason than to change the headlines. Most have been negative and most unrelated to football since the Spartans' regular-season ending 42-14 loss to Penn State on Nov. 21.
That night, some football players got into a "small" altercation at a nightclub. And the next day, a group of them left the end-of-year awards banquet and went to a dormitory across the street, where a fight erupted with members of a fraternity who were apparently involved in the Saturday fracas.
The investigation is ongoing, but Mark Dantonio has taken action with 10 players who were identified. Running back Glenn Winston and safety Roderick Jenrette -- both recipients of second chances from Dantonio for prior transgressions -- are gone for good.
Eight others are suspended for the bowl game, including starters in cornerback Chris L. Rucker, wide receiver B.J. Cunningham and wide receiver Mark Dell. They were suspended for being there and then lying to Dantonio about it. Five other suspects have yet to be identified but will be suspended if they turn out to be football players, Dantonio said.
So yeah, it's been a mess in East Lansing.
"As I said to our football team last week, it's like a hurricane," Dantonio said. "A hurricane blew in. At Thanksgiving there was a little bit of an eye of the storm. And I told them they'd better brace up, because the end of the storm's pushing through this week. And that's exactly where we're at with this thing. And hopefully, the sun's gonna come out soon and we'll be able to resolve this and be able to move forward."
The suspended players include reserve running back Ashton Leggett and reserve defensive tackle Ishmyl Johnson, both of whom might have seen action in the bowl game. But Dantonio said he never considered passing on the opportunity to play in it.
"No, absolutely not," he said. "We have 95 players who did not do anything wrong. When I look at the guys who start for us, we have ... 19 starters who are intact. So there's never been any kind of doubt in that area."
There's no doubt that Dantonio's program needs something good to happen and soon.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Spartans have been led by the Big Ten's top passing offense, but key targets B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell are suspended, so quarterback Kirk Cousins needs others to step up and assist top target Blair White. Sophomore Keshawn Martin is the team's top open-field weapon, but he has struggled with drops. Look for Michigan State to use talented TEs Brian Linthicum, Charlie Gantt and Dion Sims more, and for speedy reserve Chris D. Rucker -- no relation to suspended CB Chris L. Rucker -- to get a chance to help.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: After a midseason surge that culminated with a mostly terrific effort against Iowa, the Spartans allowed more than 1,500 yards to their last three Big Ten opponents -- Minnesota, Purdue and Penn State. The lack of front-four pass rush is a major problem. The Spartans have stopped the run against most teams, but the pass-rush issue and a struggling secondary are problems. And Chris L. Rucker's suspension takes away this team's top cover corner. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi will have to come up with some magic tricks to avoid embarrassment in the bowl game.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: MSU LB Greg Jones vs. Texas Tech QB Taylor Potts. Much of MSU's defensive effort will be on Jones, as usual. He must be able to diagnose things quickly, and he'll likely spend much of his time chasing Potts off the edge. Potts gets rid of the ball quickly in Texas Tech's offense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're gonna gain our self respect back as a football team and as a program, on and off the field. And it is my goal and my intention to win that football game. And we will be extremely motivated to do that as a program, coaches and players alike." -- MSU coach Mark Dantonio
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: Michigan State vs. Texas Tech, Alamo Bowl, Jan. 2, San Antonio -- It'll be a virtual home game for the Red Raiders, who quietly had a strong eight-win season with blowout wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska. MSU has played in the Alamo Bowl once, a 2003 loss to Nebraska. Chances are good for a high-scoring affair.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Keith Nichol -- Kirk Cousins remains the starter, but the extra bowl prep time might allow MSU's coaches to add some elements to get Nichol involved. He is an explosive runner with a big arm who might be able to help in the red zone, particularly.
WR Keshawn Martin -- Martin moves up to No. 2 receiver with the suspensions of B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell. He was already heavily involved as a return man and a runner on reverses and wildcat plays. Now Martin must prove that his early-season case of the dropsies has been cured.
DT Jerel Worthy -- The most talented defensive lineman on the team is a redshirt freshman, and this defense is much better when he dominates the interior. Worthy appeared to lose some steam late in the regular season and the Spartans need him in midseason form to have a chance.
CB Ross Weaver -- The senior captain has been used mostly as a nickel back this season, but Chris L. Rucker's suspension means he'll start and play heavy snaps. Weaver has been an on-and-off starter since his freshman season, so the bright lights shouldn't bother him.
--The Spartans expected to get S Roderick Jenrette back from a broken foot for the bowl game, but now he's off the team for good thanks to his involvement in an on-campus fight. MSU's safeties have struggled all season, particularly sophomore Trenton Robinson.
--Junior LB Greg Jones was named an AFCA first-team All-American, shortly after Big Ten media voted him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Jones was joined on the All-Big Ten first team by K Brett Swenson and WR Blair White, with C Joel Nitchman earning second-team honors.
Also, White has been named a first team Academic All-American. Steve Wasylk in 1993 was the Spartans' last first-team Academic All-American.
--The Spartans are mostly healthy entering the bowl game, and some time off has allowed key players such as DE Trevor Anderson (ankle), QB Kirk Cousins (ankle) and S Danny Fortener (concussion) to get closer to 100 percent.