January 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

This year's mission complete, but Michigan State is just getting started

Michigan State defenders gang up on Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney and stop him at the line of scrimmage. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

Pasadena, Calif. — Rose Bowl workers already were sweeping up the confetti and rolling up the logos, getting ready for the next big game in a few days, the one for the national championship. It was past midnight in the Midwest, where a new day was dawning, in many ways.

Michigan State again marched into a stadium as an underdog gnawing on disrespect, but this time walked out into a whole new environment. It was different all season for Michigan State, as it rolled to a 13-1 mark and a 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and it will be especially different now.

Mark Dantonio called the journey a “completion,” and it was. But it sure looks like a beginning too, as national title aspirations grow. What the Spartans did this season was incredible, and with their defensive depth, it’s sustainable. It’s not precisely replicable because this was a unique wrinkle in time, and Michigan State pops out the other side with altered perceptions.

Normally, one Rose Bowl victory in 26 years doesn’t signal seismic shifts, but this has been building for seven seasons under Dantonio. The Spartans shy away from nothing, which is good, because they’re going to get hit with long-term expectations they haven’t felt in years. That’s what happens when you go 13-1 and supplant Ohio State atop the Big Ten and shove Michigan into the shadows.

Michigan State likely will finish in the top three of the polls, and when the rankings come out next season, should be in the top 10. The Rose Bowl never was a mirage to Dantonio, and neither is the national championship. Long after the victory, Michigan State wasn’t in a rush to leave the stadium, recognizing it could have been playing in the BCS title game here if not for a couple of rough breaks against Notre Dame.

Florida State and Auburn will settle the No. 1 issue Monday, and next season, the four-team playoff commences. Michigan State could be right there in the hunt, and knows it.

“That’s our plan,” Dantonio said. “Our plan is that we’re one game away. I said, ‘Why not us?’ a couple weeks ago. I think we can compete with anybody in this country. You’ve got to execute, you’ve got to find the inches, and you’ve got to believe that you belong there.”

Back for more

The Spartans lost close games in 2012 while going 7-6, and that fueled Dantonio’s message. But the message only has weight if the team has belief in the system, and oh, my, do the Spartans embrace the system. Pat Narduzzi’s defense loses six starters — Darqueze Dennard, Isaiah Lewis, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Micajah Reynolds, Tyler Hoover — and it won’t be easy to match the remarkable numbers of this year’s top-ranked crew.

But the offense should be better with improvements in decision-making by quarterback Connor Cook. Almost all his weapons, including tough runner Jeremy Langford, should be back. College football comes down to the narrowest margins — inches, decimal points, rankings — but the Spartans have a foundation sturdy enough to make this much more than a one-shot deal.

There are no givens, and the 2014 schedule features a daunting trip to Oregon on Sept. 13. But the rest of it shakes out well, with Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan at home, and only one moderately tough Big Ten road game, at Penn State.

And if you ask why perceptions and expectations matter, here’s why: Michigan State was unranked before the season, and after the 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, faced a long climb to get to No. 4. If the Spartans had started higher, who knows how much quicker they could’ve risen.

“I would say this is the start of something,” sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “Coach D always says ‘completed,’ but I feel like we haven’t finished the circle yet. We have bigger and better things to accomplish.”

Dantonio frets about handling success, and that is something to watch. Team dynamics can shift suddenly, and Michigan State had tremendous chemistry.

Former walk-on Kyler Elsworth’s solid performance in place of the suspended Bullough showed Narduzzi’s system is so good, it can plug in anyone. It also showed this was a special group, and that’s tougher to sustain than defensive prowess.

“After this year, obviously the expectations are sky high,” Cook said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do it next year, as well.”

It’s a great challenge to have. Nobody wears chips more proudly than Michigan State, and Dantonio has harvested loads of passion out of the underdog role. That angle might be over now, but the Spartans played it perfectly one more time, and the Cardinal took the bait. Stanford foolishly kept running straight at Michigan State, assuming its power could top anyone’s.

Willing to adjust

One of the best transformations the Spartans have made is this: They stay true to who they are but they’re not stubborn, they adjust. Cook came out throwing because few teams run on Stanford. The Cardinal might have thrown more too, but Dennard had star receiver Ty Montgomery locked down.

Afterward, Narduzzi had a wild-eyed look as he recounted another spin on the motivational wheel.

“I heard on ESPN they didn’t think Darqueze could stop (Montgomery),” Narduzzi said. “So I sat at breakfast with Darqueze and said, ‘Hey, they’re saying you can’t cover him.’ He said, ‘We’ll see, Coach.’ They said we hadn’t seen a receiver in the Big Ten like that. They must think we play 1-AA football in the Big Ten, I don’t know.”

There’s a growing beast in the Big Ten and it plans to stay. As Narduzzi stood in an emptying locker room, he lamented the pass-interference penalties at Notre Dame and said Michigan State probably should be playing for the national championship, and that wasn’t far-fetched. It was an amazing season to watch, and as a new Green Day dawns, it might not be the last time we see it.


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