No longer the little brother, Michigan State shines in Rose Bowl win
PASADENA, Calif. -- The first moments of a new era for Michigan State football erupted into a locker room dance party.
Pitbull blared through the bowels of the Rose Bowl, as beefy defensive linemen danced with pint-sized walk-ons and coaches' children. "It's going down, I'm yelling timber," Ke$ha screamed through the speakers. "You better move, you better dance."
The players obeyed, but the song could well have been eulogizing the age-old perceptions of the Spartans. With their 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, they capped a 13-win season and sawed down longtime stereotypes like trees in a forest.
There are games that flip opinions, alter reputations and change the world order. Forget the "same-old Spartans" meme or the "Little Brother" label that former Michigan tailback Mike Hart famously bestowed upon Michigan State. On Wednesday, the Spartans lined up toe-to-toe with the Cardinal and proved the grittier, tougher and better team.
On offense, Michigan State outgained Stanford by 92 yards (397-305) and ground out 10 more first downs. On defense, the Spartans sealed the victory by blowing the Cardinal off the ball on a Sumo-on-Sumo fourth-and-one late in the final quarter.
"We can play with the elite teams," said Michigan State defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun. "We're able to win Rose Bowls and win national championships. That's the next step for us. The national championship is something we're going to strive for next year."
The victory furthered cemented the Spartans' status as the Big Ten's best team, a designation Michigan State earned by pushing undefeated Ohio State around in the conference title game on Dec. 7. In a state where the Spartans have played second banana to Michigan for generations, Michigan State currently has the better coach, program and prospects for the future. The Spartans opened this season unranked in the AP Poll while Michigan checked in at No. 17. Next year should be a different story.
"You can say we're always fighting perception, but we're the winningest Big Ten football team over the last six years," said Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner. He then paused and summed up the plight of the program: "You just have to tell people that."
No one had to tell Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, whose unit muzzled a powerful offense for a second consecutive game. Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the country's top assistant coach, joked that the tenor of the pregame commentary on ESPN led him to believe that "they must think we play 1-AA football in the Big Ten."
The conference's 1-9 record in the past 10 Rose Bowls heading into Wednesday would support that notion. But Narduzzi wasn't afraid to say what he thought Michigan State's destiny should have been this season.
"We probably should have been playing a week later and against someone else," he said. He then grumbled about "a few odd calls," alluding to the pass interference penalties that enabled Notre Dame to beat the Spartans 17-13 on Sept. 21.
"I'm fired up for the Big Ten conference," Narduzzi added, noting that he saw commissioner Jim Delany on the field and gave him a thumbs up.
While one BCS victory doesn't restore the Big Ten's reputation, it does solidify the Spartans' fortunes within the state of Michigan. The Wolverines got blown off the field in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State, closing the season with five losses in their final six games. They have also dropped five of six games to their in-state rival. So, is Michigan State the "Big Brother" for the foreseeable future?
"Those are your words," said Calhoun. "But if you wrote it down, I wouldn't say no."
Reports emerged early on Wednesday that Michigan State had locked up coach Mark Dantonio to a long-term contract worth nearly $4 million per season. Appropriately, it catapults him from the bottom third of the conference pay scale up to the top three.
Dantonio has given the Spartans a hard-nosed identity and a proud, power football team that smothers opponents in an era in which teams are increasingly embracing the spread. Stanford, which has played in four consecutive BCS games, employs a similar style. So it was perfect symmetry on Wednesday when Michigan State's defense clinched the win on a play in which the Cardinal shuffled three extra offensive linemen onto the field. "Everybody in the building knew exactly what was coming," said Stanford tailback Tyler Gaffney. "It was a test of wills and they got the better of us."
Calhoun and former walk-on linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who played in place of suspended star Max Bullough, combined to smother Cardinal fullback Ryan Hewitt. Michigan State hadn't won the Rose Bowl since 1988, so the defensive stop launched a long-awaited celebration that could happen again relatively soon.
"Now we're going to be in that conversation," Elsworth said. "We can be a top-five team and a national contender."
Since 2008, no Big Ten team has won more games in conference play than Michigan State. (The Buckeyes' vacated wins don't count in this category, which fits because the Dantonio era has been defined by its stability and consistency). Since '08, Michigan State ranks among the top 10 nationally in wins, following a four-season run of 11, 11, 7 and 13 victories. That puts it in the same neighborhood of such programs as Oklahoma, LSU, Boise State and Florida State.
The Spartans should return five defensive starters and seven offensive starters next fall, including sophomore quarterback Connor Cook. In Cook, Michigan State appears to have a budding star. He completed 22-of-36 passes for 332 yards on Wednesday. He did throw a horrific pick-six to Stanford's Kevin Anderson in the second quarter, but he overcame that disaster to deliver the game-winning 25-yard touchdown strike to Tony Lippett in the fourth. He also orchestrated a flawless two-minute scoring drive that cut Stanford's lead to 17-14 before the half.
"He threw some balls up there, phew," Warner said. "He's a work in progress. But with his size and his athletic ability and how he handles himself, he can be very good."
That applies to the Spartans in the near future, too. As the locker room dance party spread from Pasadena to East Lansing, Michigan State fans everywhere basked in the victory. Cue the music, as this new era in Spartans football already has a soundtrack.