Upper Arlington's Chris Frey leads Michigan State in tackles this season, but he doesn't take much joy in that. Part of that is because the junior linebacker doesn't care that much about statistics. A bigger part is that it's hard to find a lot of satisfaction in the Spartans' stunningly disappointing season.

Upper Arlington's Chris Frey leads Michigan State in tackles this season, but he doesn't take much joy in that.

Part of that is because the junior linebacker doesn't care that much about statistics. A bigger part is that it's hard to find a lot of satisfaction in the Spartans' stunningly disappointing season.

A year ago, Michigan State surprised Ohio State at Ohio Stadium and went on to win the Big Ten championship and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. This season, the Spartans' hopes were doomed by a seven-game losing streak that finally ended with a 49-0 victory over Rutgers last week.

When Michigan State plays the Buckeyes in East Lansing on Saturday, all the Spartans have at stake is their pride.

"It's been tough," Frey said. "This is obviously what we and most teams would call a down year. But through everything, guys on the team have remained strong. We just keep pushing forward. At the end of the day, if we give up, we're giving up on our brothers and giving up on Spartan Nation. We have to keep fighting for them."

No one would accuse Frey of ever conceding. Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett recently described the junior as a "caveman" because of his old-school style. He even looks the part, with long hair that he hasn't cut in 2½ years.

"It applies to exactly who I am," Frey said of Barnett's description. "I come out there and I'm going to fight every single day and every single play to be great - a guy who's not going to give up."

Frey said he has always been that way since he started playing at age 5 on a team coached by his dad, who's now a recruiting facilitator. He described a drill in which one player would have to avoid tackles by an entire team.

"I would run to the one side of the field where nobody could catch me, and then I'd turn around and I'd sprint in the middle of everyone else and see who wanted to touch me, because I knew that nobody could tackle me," Frey said.

Now he's doing the tackling. A first-year starter, Frey has 81 tackles, 16 more than any other Spartan.

"It's cool or whatever to be the leading tackler, but it's not about me," he said. "It's about the entire defense. If it's up to me to sacrifice myself to take on a block and give a tackle to somebody else, I'm going to do it."

Saturday's game will be special to Frey. He grew up a Buckeye fan. He said he was lightly recruited by Ohio State but knew Michigan State was the place for him when he visited East Lansing.

"I love it here, literally everything about it - the people, the coaching staff, the fans, the family atmosphere, the academics," Frey said.

Not even a 3-7 record alters that.

"It's been tough, but it's not going to change the way I feel about this place," he said. "This is home."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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