EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Connor Cook sat in a chair on the second floor of the Skandalaris Football Center surrounded by reminders of Pasadena. Every turn of the head brought another image of a rose. There were photos of roses clutched in players' teeth. There were photos of roses painted on grass. There were roses printed on T-shirts. For the past few months, the Michigan State quarterback and his teammates have probably felt like they're living in a 1-800-FLOWERS commercial.
"We're tired of people talking about the Rose Bowl," Cook said earlier this month.
Oh, the Spartans remain quite thrilled that they won the Big Ten title and then beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. But after watching the game played in Pasadena five days after they dispatched the Cardinal, Michigan State's players wonder how their season might have ended had the College Football Playoff gone into effect one year earlier. "We felt like we could have been right in there," Cook said. "We'd have loved to have been in there against Florida State or Auburn."
That nagging feeling has helped the Spartans overcome any lingering Rose Bowl hangover. Plus, most of the players on the roster understand that the difference between a frustrating season and an unforgettable one can be fairly miniscule. Michigan State was better in 2013 than it was in '12, but not by as much as most people think. That '12 team went 7-6 but lost five games by a total of 13 points. A few bounces in the other direction and Michigan State could be riding a wave of four consecutive seasons with 11 wins or more. "There are inches involved," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said when discussing the differences between '12 and '13.
Dantonio spent last spring trying to find those extra inches. He knew his team stood on the verge of a special season thanks to an elite defense. He and his staff had to find the inches that often define the difference between victory and defeat by freeing an offense trapped in a cycle of mediocre quarterback play and dropped passes. Michigan State didn't solve its issues last spring, but the Spartans figured things out by October. Now, fresh off a 13-1 campaign, a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory, Dantonio and his staff are back at work looking for the inches. Only they're searching in different places. "It's very hard to get to that point," Dantonio said. "It's very hard to stay at that point."
The offense that seemed such a puzzle last spring and early last season now appears to be a strength. Cook took over the starting quarterback role in mid-September and got better with each passing week. Jeremy Langford, who entered the 2013 season with nine career carries, is one of the Big Ten's best running backs. The offensive line must break in three new starters, but a pair of Jacks (center Allen and left tackle Conklin) should ease the transition. Wide receivers Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphrey seem to have mostly eliminated the drops that plagued them earlier in their careers. Combined with Cook, they can stretch defenses.
This time around, the questions are on defense. Michigan State lost the Big Ten's best cornerback (Darqueze Dennard). It lost two heart-and-soul linebackers (Max Bullough and Denicos Allen). It lost a three-year starter at safety (Isaiah Lewis). But it did not lose coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Narduzzi was never hotter than at the conclusion of last season, when his Spartan Dawgs allowed the fewest yards per play (4.04) in the nation. Narduzzi has turned down coordinator jobs at Texas A&M and Tennessee, and his achievements in recent years suggest that his next step is a head coaching gig. But Narduzzi, who received a raise this offseason that bumped his salary to $904,583, is reluctant to leave for a position that doesn't feel quite right. This past offseason, he turned down the Connecticut opening -- which would require a tough rebuild -- and watched the bigger jobs (USC, Penn State, Texas) go to established head coaches.
So, Narduzzi worked this spring to plug new players in place of key contributors. He has handled talent drains successfully during his time in East Lansing, but this one could be particularly tough because the players leaving understood the defense so well. "We lost some intelligence," he said. Still, once the new contributors gain some experience, Narduzzi believes they can play just as wisely as the ones who left. Taiwan Jones, who started 13 games at weakside linebacker last fall, will slide into the middle linebacker spot vacated by Bullough. That means Jones will now be responsible for aligning the Spartans properly before each play.
Defensive end Shillique Calhoun doubts the transition will be difficult. The Spartans return enough experience on defense -- including Calhoun, safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes -- to help new starters or old starters in new positions pick up the mental slack until they get comfortable in their roles. After all, Calhoun reminds a visitor, Michigan State took down Stanford without Bullough, who was suspended for the game. Former walk-on Kyler Ellsworth replaced his fellow senior and very little changed. "A perfect example is the Rose Bowl," Calhoun said. "People didn't believe we had a middle linebacker. Kyler Ellsworth stepped up and showed them. It's the same thing this year."
One reason the Spartans feel so confident in their ability to reload is a consistent culture established by Dantonio and a staff that hasn't turned over much since arriving from Cincinnati prior to the 2007 season. Michigan State's players and coaches know who they are and what they are, and they've figured out what works. "They understand," Dantonio said, "there's a personality."
That personality is a tough, intelligent group that might not have gotten much love from recruiting services in high school. While the Spartans occasionally land a Will Gholston or a Malik McDowell -- a five-star defensive end who signed with Michigan State on April 1 following a protracted drama involving his parents' disagreement with his school choice -- they have also done well finding lightly recruited players such as Dennard and Conklin. Dennard, who might be the first cornerback taken in next month's NFL draft, had no other offers when the Spartans came calling. Conklin was a zero-star recruit who walked on in 2012 and went on scholarship in January '13. Last year, he started 13 games and was named a freshman All-America. Narduzzi said there isn't a secret to Michigan State's staff out-evaluating its competitors, but he said the Spartans do place a premium on smarts. "Intelligence is big," Narduzzi said. "It's hard to win with dumb guys. They can be as athletic as possible, but if they're screwing everything up, you've got problems."
Still, the Spartans would like to use their recent success as a springboard to higher ranked recruiting classes. Dantonio said the recent wins have opened more doors, but Narduzzi seemed frustrated that some of the more highly sought-after players keep choosing schools that haven't produced the way Michigan State has lately. "They still think things are better other places, I guess," he said.
Another season like 2013 could make the Spartans impossible to ignore. And while Narduzzi has a lot to replace, he knows he'll get more of an assist from the offense than he did early last season. For much of September, Michigan State might have been better off leaving its defense on the field the entire game. The defense outscored the Spartans' first two opponents (Western Michigan and South Florida) and held Notre Dame to 17 points in Michigan State's lone loss on Sept. 21.
But after an open date, Cook -- who was making his third start -- showed glimpses of what he would become in a 26-14 win at Iowa. Over the next month, Lippett and Mumphrey started snagging passes, and Langford established himself as a reliable option on the ground. The offense's confidence surged, and by November, when Michigan State needed a drive in the fourth quarter of a tight game at Nebraska, Cook and company delivered. "Each week, he became more comfortable," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said of Cook. "Simple things like calling the plays in the huddle. Now, it's like the back of his hand."
Cook didn't rest following the Rose Bowl, either. He spent his spring break in San Diego taking classes from private quarterback coach George Whitfield, and he has spent spring practice improving an already excellent chemistry and challenging the Spartans' defense. "I'm not sure we're a strength yet," Warner said, "but certainly we're light years ahead of where we were this time last year."
Thanks to that improvement, Warner hopes to return the favor Narduzzi's group did his unit last year. "We have to be good enough on offense to pick up the slack," Warner said. "Last year, our defense obviously picked up the slack."
If the offense can give the defense some time to grow, the Spartans may get their chance to see how they stack up in a competition for the national title. But they can't think about that now -- just as they must forget the Rose Bowl in spite of reminders everywhere they look. If Michigan State's players get caught remembering the smell of the roses, they won't last on their perch for long. "The ride up is tough," Dantonio said. "The ride down is fast."