January 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State reaches for elite status in Rose Bowl

MSU coach Mark Dantonio has built a pugnacious power on defense, toughness and hard-bitten drive. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

Los Angeles — The Green keeps growing, from the airports to the hotels to the grand old stadium tucked in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Spartans have arrived after all these years in a noisy burst, blowing their cover and determined to blow away perceptions.

For a program motivated by slights and oversights, stoked in the shadows, Michigan State isn’t hidden anymore, basking in the bright natural light of Pasadena. Oh, the Spartans are still underdogs to Stanford in the Rose Bowl today, and that’s fine with them. But they’re not obscured by anything now — not the mountains, not the expectations, not another daunting opponent.

Mark Dantonio has built a pugnacious power on defense, toughness and hard-bitten drive. The Spartans are in a great place, 12-1 and ranked fourth in the country, and have proven they belong. Next step? Show they can hang with the national elite.

“Stanford has been in this football game before, they’ve played in this type of environment,” Dantonio said. “Our guys are sort of on a new threshold here. So it’s important we play and make sure people understand we belong, and that’s a big risk saying that. But you need to step out there and dream big. Our dreams didn’t end with a championship and coming to the Rose Bowl. We wanted to win it.”

After shoving aside old obstacles like Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans run smack into a team just like them. The Cardinal is 11-2 and ranked fifth, playing in its fourth straight BCS bowl and second straight Rose Bowl. Just like Dantonio, Stanford coach David Shaw is generating fresh acclaim. Both teams pound the ball, hit with fury and boast unheralded quarterbacks, Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan.

This will not be easy for Michigan State — it never is for Big Ten teams. The conference has lost nine of the past 10 Rose Bowls, although the Spartans don’t have that stain on their hands. They haven’t been here in 26 years and the fervor is overflowing, with 50,000 Michigan State fans expected in the stands.

The Spartans are thrilled to make the trip, but can’t let any happy-to-be-here mentality soften them. Stanford used to be happy in games like this, but truly gained national prestige when it started winning them, including a 20-14 victory over Wisconsin in last year’s Rose Bowl.

Make no mistake, the stakes are significant. For the Spartans, this can be an arrival and a launching at the same time. If they win, they could finish as high as No. 2 in the rankings, and possibly land in the preseason top five next year. No goal is too far-fetched now. If not for the 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, Michigan State would be playing for the national title.

“If you think you’ve made it and you have nothing else to gain, that’s the wrong mentality,” senior linebacker Denicos Allen said. “For the younger guys, it’s gonna be for the national championship. This should be our standard now, making it to the Rose Bowl and winning the Big Ten.”

Beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game was one culmination. This would be an even bigger one. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons, and the No. 4 ranking is their highest since 1967.

This seven-year climb under Dantonio has a sturdy feel to it, not a fluky feel. Michigan State has the best defense in the country and coordinator Pat Narduzzi is a star, if that’s possible for an assistant coach. Darqueze Dennard is the top cornerback in the nation. The Spartans will be without their suspended leader, Max Bullough, and while that’s a crusher, it also could be motivation for a defense that isn’t about just one guy.

Michigan State is deep and not easily intimidated, just like Stanford.

“Mentality-wise I believe we’re very similar — play great defense, run the ball, make big plays in the passing game, be smart on special teams, play field position,” Shaw said. “To me, the fact we have that in common with Michigan State is really cool. There are other places or other teams that don’t necessarily put things in that order. There are things that are flashier and more exciting. That’s worked for us the last several years and I know that’s worked for Michigan State.”

The Spartans have dodged any sense of entitlement or satisfaction so far, maladies that can plague rising programs. In fact, they won every Big Ten game by double-digits, no letdowns or meltdowns.

The more people watch this team, the more they notice. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit talked bluntly about perceptions, and how they can continue to change.

“This (Rose Bowl) is a huge opportunity to take the program to that next level,” Herbstreit said. “To be able to get people to say, ‘Michigan State? Oh yeah, they are definitely a team to be taken seriously.’ ”

That hasn’t been the case in the past, but go ahead and ask the Wolverines and Buckeyes if it’s the case now. The evidence and impact are irrefutable, with more possible today.

The Spartans are back on the national map, although as the championship chips grow, they don’t want the shoulder chips to diminish. It’s well-documented how Dantonio and his staff turn more underrated green prospects than blue-chip prospects into good players. Practically every star on the defense, from Dennard to Allen to Shilique Calhoun, is an example of that.

Practically the entire offense is an example of it, too, from rapidly rising Jeremy Langford to the improved receivers to the feisty sophomore quarterback.

“Obviously we want to be recognized that we just don’t have a defense at Michigan State, we also have an offense,” Cook said. “We’re a whole team, we’re a whole package. But we kind of like the doubters;, that provides motivation for us.”

Doubters, beware. Michigan State just completed the longest trek possible, a circle closed. And with it, even greater possibilities are now open.


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