CHICAGO — If life was fair, Michigan State would have earned back-to-back Rose Bowl trips.
The Spartans posted the Big Ten’s best record (14-2) over the last two seasons. In 2010, Michigan State tied Wisconsin and Ohio State for the Big Ten title but lost the Rose Bowl spot to Wisconsin because of a tiebreaker. Michigan State beat Wisconsin head-to-head and didn’t play Ohio State, which lost to Wisconsin. But the Spartans were relegated to the Capital One Bowl, outside of the BCS.
Last year, the Spartans were the only Big Ten team with a 7-1 record. Michigan State beat Wisconsin again, but in the Big Ten’s inaugural season with divisional play, the teams faced off in a championship game. Wisconsin edged the Spartans 42-39. Instead of moving into the Big Ten’s second BCS bowl slot, the Spartans fell to the Outback Bowl.
“I think we’re in a position of contention,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said. “We always are. I think we are moving along. When you talk about where we wanted to go when we first came here, what we wanted to try to accomplish, we said we want to build a foundation. We keep trying to build a foundation to try to get to that Rose Bowl. We’re not there yet. We haven’t made it there yet, but that’s our goal.”
Michigan State’s foundation unquestionably is defense. The Spartans ranked first in Big Ten total defense, run defense and second in pass defense. Michigan State also led in sacks and opponents’ third-down conversions. Michigan State ranked in the top 20 nationally in seven categories, including sixth in total defense. The Spartans return five defenders that were named to either the Big Ten’s first- or second-team defense last year.
“It’s not something where we can just throw our hat out there and do it again this year,” said linebacker Max Bullough, a returning second-team all-Big Ten selection. “It’s not about doing what we did last year again. It’s about starting from scratch, and we have the same guys so we can do it again. But we just need to understand what it took to get there and do it again.”
Michigan State’s defense has established an aggressive, hard-hitting reputation. At times the Spartans have went too far, as judged by defensive end William Gholston’s one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike hits on Michigan QB Denard Robinson last year. But the approach has worked in shutting down high-voltage players like Robinson.
“The word I like to use is relentless,” Bullough said. “I think that’s a very good word in describing our defense. Bad things are going to happen. Teams are going to score; it’s just the way college football is. If you can get past those things and play good in any situation and maybe they have a 60-yard run and they’re down a the 10-yard line, can you say, ‘All right, let’s stop them here. It’s a field goal here, it’s not a touchdown.’ Those are the things that make a great defense.”
All three linebackers return, including junior Denicos Allen, who finished second in the Big Ten with 11 sacks. Allen and Bullough were second-team all-Big Ten selections, and fellow linebacker Chris Norman was named honorable mention. The Spartans bring back first-team all-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams and second-team safety Isaiah Lewis, who had four interceptions. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard also earned honorable mention honors. The key returnee is Gholston, a 6-foot-7, 278-pound beast at defensive end. He had 16 tackles for loss last year. He forms perhaps the nation’s best defensive end combination with Marcus Rush.
Bullough said the key is to play physical on every down. That’s been a focus this offseason for the defense and it’s been preached by defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. It’s a philosophy championed by Dantonio and why the program has shed its inconsistent label under his tutelage.
“He’s done it the right way,” Bullough said. “A lot of coaches will come in and try to change it right away and get a recruiting class and start all the freshmen. But Coach D has done it the right way with building the program with character and leading from the top, which I think is most important. You may not have seen the most success right away the first year or two, but I think for the long haul Coach D has brought Michigan State back to where it belongs.”
Michigan State’s top goal remains the Rose Bowl, where the the Spartans have not competed since 1988. But Dantonio’s focus is on the micro approach, which has taken the Spartans to bowl games in five straight seasons.
“We have to be keep working, we have to keep our eyes on the prize and we have to do it segment-by-segment, game-to-game,” Dantonio said. “If you get too far ahead of yourself, I think you’re destined for failure, to be honest with you. I think you have to look at what’s your next job at hand, your next task”
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS