Spartan guard Travis Jackson says Michigan State won't overlook FCS opponent Jacksonville State. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — For Michigan State junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, the last 21 days felt more like five years.
Of course Calhoun, one of the team captains, was exaggerating, but as camp broke on Thursday, the chance to get a few days off and freshen up for the beginning of the season was the top priority for most.
No longer will they be hitting only each other — an opponent is on the horizon.
“We’ve been champing at the bit to play since camp started,” senior guard Travis Jackson said.
They’ll get that chance on Friday when Jacksonville State visits Spartan Stadium to open the 2014 season, one that signifies a new beginning after a record-setting season a year ago when Michigan State won 13 games, including its first Rose Bowl in more than 25 years.
But they insist that is in the past.
“Our main focus is on Jacksonville State Friday night in that stadium back there,” Jackson said, pointing to Spartan Stadium. “There’s nothing like it in college football.”
Before that happens, however, the Spartans were able to take advantage of a few days off. Some went back home and watched their high school teams play while others stuck around.
But getting off the football field was the key, no matter where they stayed.
“I think it’s very important that they get away from football,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We don’t really want them around here, then also we want them to get off and get their legs back. You’ve got to run in this game day-in and day-out. … They’ve had three weeks of this and they need a chance to refresh themselves.”
Calhoun didn’t head out of town. Instead the native of Middletown, New Jersey, began his own preparation for Jacksonville State.
“I’ll be here and in the film room,” Calhoun said. “I live kind of far … It’s not like I’m just around the corner. That’s a hop and a skip.”
Even with extra film work, he was happy to take the physical break.
“Your body starts to wear and tear and sometimes you need those couple of days off so you can relax and get treatment,” he said. “I feel like most of the guys will come back fresh and ready to go and have that fire in their eyes and be ready for the season to start.”
Dantonio said even he and the coaching staff planned to take a break before getting into full-prep mode Monday.
“We take a step back,” he insisted. “You gotta stay fresh so we’ll take a step back, but I guess you’re never too far away from everything with your iPad and your film and all the different things. We can take a step back as well for a couple hours.”
It will only be a few hours for the coaching staff because the first-week opponent is no slouch.
While the perception is Jacksonville State is simply a tuneup for the Week 2 showdown with Oregon, taking the Gamecocks lightly might not be the best course of action for the Spartans.
Upsets of FBS teams by their FCS counterparts is more common these days and Jacksonville State is good enough to join those ranks in its first game with an FBS opponent. The Gamecocks are consistently in the FCS playoff — they’ve gone 14 times overall and four times since 2003 — including last season when they lost in the quarterfinals.
They’ve been so successful that their head coach, Bill Clark, left after just one season to take the job at Alabama-Birmingham.
Offensive coordinator John Grass takes over and he has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Running back DeMarcus James ran for nearly 1,500 yards last season and quarterback Eli Jenkins has taken over after emerging late last season.
“You understand you gotta be focused and you gotta gear up every time you go out there,” Dantonio said. “You’re looking for guys to continually move forward whether that’s a freshman or whether that’s a senior. You’re looking for guys to take their game to the next step every step of the way.”
That approach begins in earnest Monday with preseason camp finished and another season firmly in the Spartans’ sights.
Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Did you know?: Jacksonville State was 11-4 in 2013 and scored 35.2 points per game.