East Lansing — When Mark Dantonio was asked earlier this week to reflect on this year’s senior class, he thought back to preseason camp in 2011.
That’s when most of the 24 seniors to be honored today when No. 6 Michigan State takes on Penn State at 3:30 p.m. first arrived on campus.
There was the usual excitement of a new group coming in, and Michigan State was fresh off its first Big Ten championship in 20 years. Dantonio recalled how Harlon Barnett, then the team’s defensive backs coach, pointed out he thought there were a handful of NFL players in that group.
“We had high expectations for those guys from day one,” Dantonio said.
At that time it would have been difficult to imagine, but this senior class has likely met and exceeded nearly every expectation that could have been thought of back in August of 2011.
They won another Big Ten championship, beating Ohio State in the conference title game in 2013. They got Michigan State back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years — and won. They finished in the top five in the nation in both 2013 and 2014. They’ve won 10 or more games in three consecutive seasons. They’ve produced some of the top players in program history, including Connor Cook, Michigan State’s winningest quarterback, and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a two-time second-team All-American.
And if they manage to take care of business today against Penn State, they’ll reach their third Big Ten Championship game in five seasons with a good opportunity to reach the College Football Playoff.
Oh, and a win today matches them with the 2013 and 2014 classes for the most victories in Spartans history with 42.
“It reflects the classes we’ve had before them,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “You see a group of workers, a group of leaders and obviously they’ve accomplished a ton as a class and we’re proud of how they’ve grown. It’s based off the people that came before them, too, and they had really good models to watch in ’11, ’12, ’13 and how those seniors carried themselves. It’s a product of the culture of the program.”
It’s hard to ignore what that culture has produced. The top five winningest classes have all come in the last five years, beginning with the 2012 class that won 35 games, followed by 2011 that won 37 games and began the streak of four consecutive bowl victories by beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
This year’s seniors have been around for all of it, soaking in as much as they could along the way.
“Every year I’ve been here the senior class chemistry just keeps getting better and better,” said center Jack Allen, who redshirted in 2011. “I think that’s been important since day one with me on campus.”
They’re also prepared to put their own stamp on the program. If things go to plan, the seniors will become the winningest class with a win next week at the Big Ten Championship game.
“I remember as a redshirt freshman, coming through that tunnel for the first time, against Youngstown State,” tight end Paul Lang said. “It’s pretty crazy, knowing we’ve got a chance Saturday to get 11 wins again and take this program to an elite level.”
That emotion will be shared by plenty as they run out of the tunnel at Spartan Stadium today.
“It’s sad, and exciting, at the same time,” linebacker Darien Harris said.
Added Allen, “It hasn’t really hit me yet. It’s kind of weird thinking after Saturday I’ll never play a game over there again. Just kind of weird.”
Emotion will be there for the players and their families, as well. Harris said he thinks it’s a day to thank all the moms and dads, as much as anything.
For the coaches, the emotion comes later.
“A tough day for me is the last practice at the bowl game,” Dantonio said. “Because we’ll have another month together and some practices (after Senior Day), but that last bowl practice is when it hits me that these guys are gone. And it’s so abrupt because guys are graduating and they’re leaving. Guys are going to work out on their own and they’re leaving. You don’t see them. All of a sudden, there is just sort of a void.”
The difficult task today is the fact Michigan State can’t get caught up in being sentimental. The game itself is as big as anything.
With a division title and spot in the conference title game up for grabs, focusing on the task at hand will be vital.
“There’s a bit more riding on it,” Harris said. “If we don’t win, we’ll have gone from our highest peak to our worst blunder.”
It’s a bit of a twist for Senior Day at Spartan Stadium.
“We have to take the emotional aspect out of it because we need to be ready to play this football game,” Dantonio said. “So that’s very, very critical.”
Special group of seniors
Michigan State’s winningest senior classes:
Class of 2013 (2010-13): 42-12 (.778)
Class of 2014 (2011-14): 42-12 (.778)
Class of 2015 (2012-15): 41-10 (.803)
Class of 2011 (2008-11): 37-16 (.698)
Class of 2012 (2009-12): 35-18 (.660)
Penn State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. today, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760
Line: Michigan State by 10.5
Records: Penn State 7-4 (4-3 Big Ten): No. 6 Michigan State 10-1 (6-1)
Series: Tied 14-14-1