Cotton Bowl win ends Michigan State season on high note
''Everything's going sort of according to plan,'' coach Mark Dantonio said during a Monday teleconference. ''We're not fading away, we're getting better as we move forward. The challenges are getting bigger and I think it's important we understand it's how we handle success. . We've got to get ourselves ready to play a tough 2015 schedule.''
Michigan State (11-2, 7-1 Big Ten) won its final four games following a November home loss to Ohio State which knocked the Spartans out of conference title contention. MSU trailed 41-21 in its final game against the No. 5-ranked Bears on New Year's Day before embarking on the biggest bowl comeback in school history, outscoring Baylor 21-0 in the final quarter.
''This game was about mental conditioning and we won that war,'' Dantonio said. ''In the end, we won the war. With all the talk and all the different things that were going on in the game, at the end of the day we sort of persevered through it all and came out on the back end.''
MSU was already facing numerous questions about the upcoming offseason prior to the Cotton Bowl win, with defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, also the Spartans' associate head coach, leaving to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. MSU finished No. 2 in the nation in total defense in 2013 and No. 8 this season. The Spartans also ranked first in the nation in rushing defense this season, allowing 88.5 yards per game.
Dantonio announced last week that defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett and linebackers coach Mike Tressel will serve as co-defensive coordinators next season, with Barnett assuming Narduzzi's role as associate head coach. Narduzzi and Dantonio enjoyed a tearful hug after the improbable win over Baylor in their final game after three years together at Cincinnati (2004-07) and eight years at MSU.
''We'll miss Pat, there's no question,'' Dantonio said. ''We'll miss coach Narduzzi but it's time for a lot of people to grow and this is the next step in the growth process. So I feel very good. We have a lot of good players coming back and I'll expect to have a very good defense.''
Junior second-team all-American cornerback Trae Waynes will not be back and has already announced his intent to declare for the 2015 NFL Draft. Dantonio said junior defensive Shilique Calhoun is still weighing his options in that regard but did officially state that quarterback Connor Cook will be back for his senior season. Cook was discussed as a potential first-round pick at times throughout the season.
''Extremely excited that Connor Cook is coming back,'' Dantonio said. ''Second-team all-conference guy coming back to lead your football team is a huge, huge lift. I think that will pay dividends for him and pay dividends for this football team.''