January 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Michigan State's road to roses goes from daunting to dominating

As Mark Dantonio hoisted the Rose Bowl trophy Wednesday night and his players danced, the culmination of one of the most remarkable seasons in Michigan State history was complete.

In its first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years, Michigan State announced to the college football world it was a force to be reckoned with. The traditional powers had all been notified — Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Stanford. They had all experienced what Michigan State has become under Dantonio, and none had measured up.

The Spartans proved they were among the best in the nation and it was a journey that had plenty of twists and turns.

No offense

Michigan State had no trouble getting through the first two weeks, it just seemed like it was a lot tougher than it was. Two games in, the Spartans were 2-0 and the defense was proving it was going to be just as dominant, if not more so, than it was the season before. The defense scored two of Michigan State’s three touchdowns in the opener and added two more in the second game with three coming from defensive end Shilique Calhoun.

But the defense wasn’t the story. That belonged to an inept offense. Dantonio tried to deflect the attention early. “The thing to talk about here is the defense,” he said. But the only thing anyone really talked about was the inept offense and the quarterback battle. Senior Andrew Maxwell had been “given the keys” before the opener, but those were gone by week two when Connor Cook got the start and redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor joined the fray.

The Spartans didn’t have a blemish on their record, but things looked far from promising — on one side of the ball, at least.

The turning point

Following an easy victory over Youngstown State when the offense looked like a Big Ten unit — even though it was beating up on an FCS opponent — Michigan State traveled to South Bend for a meeting with Notre Dame. The Irish wasn’t quite the same squad that played in the national championship game, but it was a formidable defensive team. The Spartans moved the ball well most of the game, but struggled once they reached the red zone. The Sparrtans defense was having its issues, as well, mainly with penalties. Notre Dame took advantage and led 17-13 late.

As Michigan State came out for its final shot, Maxwell replaced Cook, but couldn’t get the offense moving, and the Spartans suffered their first defeat. Afterward, Cook was confused. “I don’t know why they pulled me,” he said. “They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that.”

It could have been the point at which the season fell apart, but somehow, it actually became the turning point. Cook and Dantonio met the next day and the commitment was made and the quarterback race was over — Cook was the guy.

'In a groove'

Amazing what a week off can do. Cook was outstanding in a victory at Iowa, throwing for 277 yards and two touchdowns. It was a far cry from the offense that struggled in nonconference. “As each week goes by, I’m becoming more comfortable with the whole process of playing quarterback in the Big Ten,” Cook said. “It’s like I’m getting in a groove.”

As much as the offense started to come to life, the defense was continuing to show it was truly the best in the nation. Iowa came into the game averaging better than 200 yard rushing and managed 23 against Michigan State. “We’ve been thinking about our last game, how to strengthen ourselves, re-evaluating ourselves as a football team and we came out and played,” Dantonio said. “We kept talking about how you’re going to have adversity here and basically have to just flood the gates.”

Pound Green, Pound

One week after the passing game proved it had some life, it was up to the running game to live up to its mantra of “Pound Green, Pound.” The running game has been the staple of the Michigan State program and the search for a lead running back was just as vital, though it hadn’t drawn the attention of the quarterback race. Against Indiana’s high-octane offense, it was the Michigan State running game that emerged and proved the perfect stage for one back to become the focal point.

Jeremy Langford, a junior who had nine carries entering the season and scored his only career touchdown on defense, staked his claim as the next lead Spartans back, gaining 109 yards and scoring four touchdowns (one receiving). “We just stayed positive,” Langford said. “We stayed with each other. We knew we could move the ball and that’s what we did during the game. We worked harder and kept pounding.”

It would be the first of eight straight 100-yard games for Langford and proved to be the final piece of an offensive puzzle that was taking shape.

Lion on the loose

Dantonio never has downplayed how important the Michigan game is to him and the Michigan State program. And why argue? He entered this year’s meeting with four wins in six seasons and was eager to avenge the loss at Michigan in 2012. But even Dantonio might have had a hard time envisioning what was in store for a Spartans team that was ranked for the first time all season. Michigan State held Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing and recorded seven sacks, completely dominating the game and beating its biggest rival into submission.

“We talked all week about keeping the lion in the cage, just peaking at game time,” Dantonio said. “Don’t worry about all the things that are being said, just keep your mouth shut, get ready to play, start the game and finish stronger than when you started. We were going to let the lion out of the cage at 3:30 and that’s what happened.”

The lion was out of the cage that day at Spartan Stadium, and it was a sign to the rest of the Big Ten, and the nation, that it was going to be on the loose for the rest of the season.

Rose Bowl-bound

Michigan State followed its win over Michigan with its first victory at Nebraska two weeks later, clinched the Legends Division title the next week at Northwestern and capped a perfect Big Ten season at home against Minnesota. It was all good, but there was one more step — winning the Big Ten title game and getting to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years. The only thing that stood in the way was an Ohio State team that hadn’t lost in 24 games. The game turned out to be the definition of the Spartans season — the offense piled up early points, the defense came up with a huge stop and Langford put the game away with a late touchdown.

“I think we heard people talk bad about us all year,” said Cook, who threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns. “This wasn’t the first week where we heard people say negative things about us as an offense or as a football team.”

That talk ceased that day in Indianapolis as a complete team was headed to Pasadena.

Mission complete

Dantonio summed it up perfectly when he was asked what winning the Rose Bowl meant to his team. “Completion,” he said. Who could argue? Before Dantonio arrived at Michigan State, the Spartans were an afterthought in the Big Ten. Gone were the glory years of the 1960s and even the surge of success under George Perles was a distant memory. But Dantonio showed up in East Lansing with a purpose — to get Michigan State to the Rose Bowl. The Spartans had come close in 2010 and 2011, but what couldn’t be denied was Dantonio had them on the right path.

It all culminated in Southern California amidst a sea of green and white. A stadium so full of Michigan State fans it seemed like Spartan Stadium West watched as their team rallied past Stanford for their 13th victory — a school record. The goal had been achieved, but it created another — the quest for a national championship. “That’s our plan,” Dantonio said. “Our plan is to keep winning.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com
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