Indianapolis — It’s a long way from there to here, from the beginning weeks ago, even years ago, to thumping music, dancing players and rose stems in the teeth. The Spartans finished it off, finished off the Buckeyes, and gave every indication they’re not finished yet.
After a night of celebration and confirmation, Michigan State now looks capable of going just about anywhere. First, the Spartans (12-1) will go back to the Rose Bowl to face an equally stout Stanford team, and when you calculate all they’ve accomplished, you realize Mark Dantonio’s program has busted through boundaries and is built to stay.
The Spartans moved up to No. 4 in the polls, which means if the four-team playoff debuted this season instead of next, they’d be in the mix with Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. Michigan State’s top-ranked defense is as good as it gets, and although it bent a bit, it made every big play in the fourth quarter to snap Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak.
This is a team that reflects the boldness and toughness of its coach, exemplified by its bold, tough defense. But it’s also reflected in the growth of its offense, in the improvement of the receivers, and in the rapidly expanding confidence of quarterback Connor Cook.
'A lifetime moment'
From there to here? Cook wasn’t even expected to start over senior Andrew Maxwell and was pulled late in the only loss, 17-13 at Notre Dame. But as the lyrics blared well past midnight in the Michigan State dressing room, there stood Cook, as poised as he was winning MVP in the 34-24 victory in the Big Ten championship game.
“Emotionally, it’s surreal, all the things you dream about as a kid — leading your team to the Big Ten championship, playing in the Rose Bowl,” Cook said. “Where I was in September, my confidence wasn’t that high. As soon as the offense started clicking, my confidence started to get bigger and bigger. We’re so tight as a team, and I think that’s why we’re so good at what we do.”
Their defense was built for greatness, and did its job methodically. But to make it to Pasadena for the first time in 26 years, the Spartans needed development from their offense, and that’s the remarkable part. Jeremy Langford topped 100 yards rushing for the eighth straight game. Receivers who couldn’t hang onto the ball early in the season caught just about everything against the Buckeyes, including touchdowns by Keith Mumphery and Tony Lippett.
Michigan State’s offensive line was tremendous, the most-overlooked aspect of this championship team. And it was all tied together by Dantonio, who coaches with an edge and gives his players the belief to play that way.
That means lots of blitzing by Pat Narduzzi’s ultra-aggressive defense. It means trick plays, including an onside kick that nearly worked. It means discipline, as the Buckeyes committed the dumb penalties and the Spartans had only three. It means when Michigan State couldn’t run, it had no problem turning the offense over to the sophomore quarterback from Ohio.
“I’m really just so, so happy,” Dantonio said.
“My dad used to always say, ‘Complete your circles.’ I thought we did that. I never get too excited. I don’t ever get too down. I live for my players, and they made a lifetime moment for all of us.”
Keeping the faith
They’ll never forget the scene on the Lucas Oil Stadium field, as Cook took a knee to kill the clock and the Michigan State fans went wild. They were outnumbered but the Spartans are used to it, and in the process of changing it. They’re 63-29 under Dantonio with three 11-victory marks the past four seasons.
“I’m so excited though my whole body, I feel like crying,” safety Kurtis Drummond said. “I’m excited to see the whole program turned around, and see where it’s going. This year, we were going to chase it, chase the Rose Bowl, and we caught it. We never lost faith in each other, and faith goes a long way.”
Faith is an overused word, but not in this case. After the Buckeyes had wiped out a 17-0 deficit and gone on top 24-17, and Braxton Miller was running all over the place, who didn’t wonder if it was about to end?
Dantonio made the call to the press box and brought Narduzzi down to the field, and when players saw his energy — and heard his loud encouragement — they believed they were turning it around. Narduzzi said he considered pulling linebacker Denicos Allen, but Allen resisted. And sure enough, he made the tackle of the year, stuffing Miller on fourth down with 5:41 left.
“It was definitely the biggest play of my life,” Allen said. “To know you’re part of such a great win and made such a critical play, it’s great. I’m glad I came to Michigan State, I love it here, and I’m glad Ohio State didn’t offer me!”
Allen punctuated his statement with a grin, yet another Ohio guy passed over by the Buckeyes and hardened by the Spartans. Cook is one too, lightly recruited, and yet there he stood, forced to throw again and again, 24-for-40. He tossed three touchdown passes and one interception, and with his mobility, was sacked only once.
As the noise in the dressing room began to subside, Cook was asked what he learned about his team’s resilience.
“I didn’t really learn anything new because we pretty much did the same thing all year,” Cook said. “We just keep pushing, no matter what the circumstances are, the score, the situation, whatever stage you’re on. People talk bad about us as an offense, criticize us, and we never let it get to us.”
From there to here and all the way to Pasadena, the Spartans chased the once-uncatchable. Where now? As Dantonio likes to say, and Cook ultimately showed, and the defense relentlessly hammered — no limits.