Dallas — By the time Michigan State takes the field on Thursday against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, it will have been 364 days since it last stood on the same field at AT&T Stadium.
It was on Jan. 1 that the Spartans stormed back from a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Baylor, 42-41, and win their fourth straight bowl game.
Now, Michigan State stands in the same spot, only this time the winner gets more than a fancy trophy and a shower of confetti. This time, the winner goes on to the national championship game.
As coach Mark Dantonio has often said, it’s about completing the circle.
“It’s funny, we talked about that when we got to practice yesterday,” linebacker Riley Bullough said on Sunday. “A year later we’re here. It’s a great thing and it’s something Coach D always talks about. Now we’re seeing it come to fruition.”
It’s starting to become the norm for this Michigan State team as Dantonio’s words of wisdom or interesting takes on life always seem to be prophetic.
Before Michigan State took a snap in 2013, Dantonio had already told that year’s seniors, ‘You will be the ones.’ And in the summer of that year, he shot a video inside the Rose Bowl saying it would be Michigan State’s time come the following January.
MSU linebacker Riley Bullough talks about the team's return to the Cotton Bowl.
The result was a 24-20 win over Stanford in Michigan State’s first trip to Pasadena in 26 years.
When the Spartans showed up in Ann Arbor this year for their showdown with Michigan, he had the players pause on the bus for 10 seconds and think about what they could do in that time to produce a win.
A few hours later, 10 seconds showed on clock before Michigan State won on the final play of the game when Jalen Watts-Jackson returned a fumbled punt for a touchdown as time expired.
“We always talk about teams of destiny,” Bullough said. “It’s kind of cliché but things keep happening. … It’s hard not to think we’re a team of destiny.
“Sometimes as player we sit back and think Coach D is reaching for something to go by, a saying or something. But then we see things happen. That Rose Bowl year there are a lot of weird things that happened. But that’s when you kind of buy in.”
The circle doesn’t completely end here, however. The Spartans want it to continue next week at the national championship game that will be played in Glendale, Ariz.
It’s not the same venue, but it’s essentially the same site most of this year’s fifth-year seniors started their bowl winning streak with a 17-16 victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
“That is the first one we played in, that we set foot in,” fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris said. “There are so many things that link it and kind of complete us as we’ve been here.
“But there is another game beyond this. The main goal of this trip is to win this game and go beyond. But the fact we’re here at the same venue this year is kind of crazy to think about.”
When Michigan State met with the media last week in East Lansing, co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett talked about a rap he created as a player at Michigan State. The message behind the song was getting to the Rose Bowl was great, but taking the next step was important, too.
He sang that song to his team during the 2013 Rose Bowl season, and the only way it’s coming out again is if the Spartans win the national title.
But that didn’t stop some of the older players from talking about it on Sunday.
“He just grabbed the mike and started going at it,” said Harris, who likened Barnett’s style to Jay Z.
“It was definitely old school,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Joel Heath said.
Harris said it happened so quickly that no one thought to grab a phone and record the performance. That has helped keep the lyrics and style under wraps.
But the players still came away impressed.
“We know coach Barnett and know he’s hip and knows what’s going on in the modern world,” Harris said. “He’s no stranger to pop culture.”
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had some fun at Ohio State’s expense on Sunday when asked about running the ball against the Michigan State defense.
“Obviously, (against Ezekiel) Elliott, Ohio State, they did a great job against him,” Kiffin said. “Hopefully we give the ball to Derrick more than they did. Just kidding.”
Elliott only carried the ball 12 times in Michigan State’s 17-14 victory over Ohio State. The Spartans shut down the Buckeyes’ offense that night, but they’ll be almost certain to see more work from Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner who averages 26 carries a game for 152.8 yards.
“We are going to have our hands full because they do play (the run) very tough,” Kiffin said. “Very physical up front, and really get after you.”
Quotable: “Strongest. Strongest and fastest.” – Bullough when asked how ranked among brothers Max (in the NFL) and Byron (a redshirt freshman).
Quotable II: “There's nothing wrong with being a little crazy out there. This is football. We all know ‘nuts.’ If you're anybody that's going to run full speed into somebody and hit them and think it feels good, you're a little nuts.” – Barnett.
Quotable III: I really do like the beard. It's the hair that's the problem. I don't know if you have ever seen the cartoon the Crimson Chin. But that's why I think he's like a superhero with that beard. It gets really wild and really crazy.” – Shilique Calhoun on Bullough’s facial hair.