Spartan seniors aim at fourth straight bowl win

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When Michigan State takes the field Jan. 1 against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, the senior class will have a chance to match the school record for most victories.

A win over the fifth-ranked team in the nation would give the Spartans seniors a 42-12 record over the last four seasons, duplicating the record established by last year's seniors, who closed their careers with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

But what this season's group has a chance to do is something last year's could not — go perfect in four straight bowl games.

The 2013 crew lost the 2011 Capital One Bowl to Alabama before rattling off victories over Georgia in the Outback Bowl and TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl before the win last year in Pasadena.

"Just for seniors, going out with a win is something you always remember," fifth-year senior defensive end Marcus Rush said. "You will always remember a loss if that does happen. We'd like to win this game and hopefully finish in the top five, which will help our program out and leave the juniors on a good note in getting ready for next year."

The possibility of winning four straight was a far-fetched idea when Dantonio took over before the 2007 season. At that point, the Spartans hadn't been to a bowl game in the previous three seasons and their last bowl win was in 2001.

But it didn't take long for things to shift.

Michigan State reached the Champ Sports Bowl against Boston College that first season, followed by a trip to the Capital One Bowl against Georgia, then the Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech. All three ended in losses, but the culture was starting to shift

"I think the first thing you have to be able to do is get to the bowl game, establish a winning culture," Dantonio said. "We were able to do that.

"Then the next thing we had to do was be able to win on the road. We've been able to do that. The third thing that had to come was winning these bowl games. I think we've taken a different approach and changed up our mentality or schedules a little bit to try and fit and make us as successful as we possibly can.

"I think that's what's happened. Our players believe in what we're doing. In each of those opportunities, where we've won the football game, we came in with an attitude and took an a approach that we were going to stay fresh, we were going to have a good time, but we were going to take a very businesslike approach as well."

It began with the Outback Bowl in 2011, fresh off a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game.

This year's seniors were redshirt freshmen and many of them were just starting to become key contributors. That game — being able to bounce back from a crushing defeat — was the turning point in winning bowl games.

"To be able to pick yourself back up and go play a Georgia team which lost in the last minute versus Alabama, I believe, was a big challenge," Dantonio said. "So we were able to do that. I think that it erased a lot of the feelings from that championship game.

"So that was No. 1, and that sort of paved the way, gave us belief in terms of what we've been able to do, and we've been able to counter that with these other bowl games."

As much as the seniors have been a part of Michigan State's resurgence in the last five years, they know one last victory would be icing on the cake.

"We just really want to try and enjoy it, not to put too much pressure on ourselves as a team, to have fun and come out with a victory," Rush said. "That would be huge. To have fun and be able to get a win would be awesome."

And even if a win doesn't come, the players insist it can't take away what they've accomplished.

"It means a lot just to see yourself and your teammates grow along with the opportunity to be a part of something so successful," fifth-year senior wide receiver Keith Mumphery said.

"It really warms my heart knowing that if I wasn't here, who knows what I would be doing. I would probably be in school but not having the time of my life like I am having right now."

Cotton Bowl

Baylor vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. Jan. 1, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR

Records: No. 5 Baylor 11-1, No. 8 Michigan State 10-2

Line: Baylor by 3

Series: Michigan State leads 1-0 (Michigan State 28-10, Sept. 28, 1968)

Outlook: Michigan State is making its school-record eighth straight bowl appearance.