Senior linebacker Denicos Allen (28) is a key member of the Michigan State team doggedly chasing its first Rose Bowl in 27 years. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — The longer you chase, the more desperate you become. Michigan State is still pursuing that Rose Bowl dream, while Michigan is still chasing a trusty old theme.
As a new season dawns, both sit at crucial junctures, after veering sideways last year. And while Ohio State is the only Big Ten team stirring much national acclaim, Michigan and Michigan State have key ingredients for significant bounce-backs.
Both have favorable schedules, and I’m not just talking about the Mitten State’s big opening weekend — Western Michigan at Michigan State, Central Michigan at Michigan. The Spartans should have one of the best defenses in the country. The Wolverines should have one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in Devin Gardner. Listen to Mark Dantonio and Brady Hoke, and there’s no tip-toeing or soft-selling, and certainly no conceding.
In his third season, Hoke keeps hammering about the Big Ten title, something Michigan hasn’t achieved in nine years. He considers anything less a failure. In his seventh season, Dantonio doggedly chases the Rose Bowl, an unrequited Michigan State goal for 26 years. In an esoteric sense, the Spartans are eager to prove they’re not going away, while the Wolverines are determined to prove they’re fully back.
“We have high expectations — we have 42 Big Ten champions that have come before, and we talk about that every day,” Hoke said Monday. “We’re trying to be the team that wins the 43rd.”
Ohio State sits in the ivory tower after Urban Meyer’s 12-0 debut, but the gap between the Buckeyes and everyone else isn’t insurmountable. The Wolverines have three new offensive line starters and plenty of youth, but Hoke said the best element of his team right now is the “physicalness up front.” The path forward is a nod backward, to the punishing way Michigan used to play.
Spartans feel close
The Big Ten title is a reasonable goal even after last season’s 8-5, partly because Ohio State comes to Ann Arbor. Greg Mattison’s defense is inexperienced in spots but should be tougher with the return of injured standouts Blake Countess and Jake Ryan (by October).
It’s also reasonable for Michigan State, and Dantonio doesn’t mind touting it. In fact, I’d say 9-3 is a fair mark for both programs, but it’s not a limit. The Spartans were 7-6 last season because their offense was full of holes. It still has questions, but the defense doesn’t.
“I feel like we have an edge to us, and there’s a light at the end of that tunnel,” Dantonio said. “We’ve been close, very close.”
They posted back-to-back 11-victory seasons, and under old guidelines, would have gone to the Rose Bowl. They lost five games last season by a total of 13 points, but also won four by a total of 12. Their margins remain narrow, unless senior Andrew Maxwell or one of the young quarterbacks seizes control. They can’t possibly replace the tailback production of Le’Veon Bell, and the receivers and offensive line have plenty to prove.
But a defense led by linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard should keep Michigan State in every game. Always hunting for an edge, Dantonio has posted Rose Bowl logos on the practice-field fences, and peels off a new motivational mantra weekly.
There’s “Chase it,” for the Rose Bowl quest. There’s talk of “inches” to denote how close they’ve gotten. There’s “eating the frog,” an interesting way of emphasizing big things must be done first. The Spartans have gone to six straight bowls and won the last two but technically haven’t eaten the frog (unless you count the Horned Frogs of TCU).
Dantonio even referenced the Bible, where seven is considered the number of completion. In his seventh season, he isn’t resting.
“There’s a feeling on our football team that a foundation has been laid,” Dantonio said. “But we’re still chasing a dream right now.”
Michigan State doesn’t face a likely Big Ten contender on the road until Nov. 16 at Nebraska, and it gets Michigan at home. The other road games (besides Notre Dame): Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern. No Ohio State, no Penn State, no Wisconsin. That’s why Michigan State’s expectations fluctuate so wildly — pegged as high as 15th by Sports Illustrated but unranked in the AP and USA Today coaches’ polls.
Michigan similarly simmers below the surface, 17th in both major polls. But besides the clash in East Lansing, the road contests are manageable: Connecticut, Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa.
Even with the return of tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint, the difference-maker has to be Gardner. He doesn’t have the speed of Denard Robinson but throws much better, and is still a vexing dual threat. In five games he threw for 11 touchdowns, ran for seven and had five interceptions.
“It’s a big responsibility because I’m the hometown guy, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” said Gardner, who played at Inkster. “I feel I’ve done it right. I waited my turn and I’m taking full advantage of it.”
Michigan is still transitioning to its old pro-style attack, with tight ends and fullbacks and hulking, runny-nosed linemen. The offense isn’t set yet, but with senior tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield book-ending the line, the Wolverines could rebound by re-pounding.
And that’s really what this season is all about — Michigan and Michigan State trying to get back what they had. Both are pursuing the elusive, and probably aren’t as far away as some might think.