Excitement builds for Spartans, fans

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — The “Go Green, Go White” chants started well over an hour before kickoff, outside and inside AT&T Stadium, the house that Jerry Jones built, and the house Michigan State was trying to make its own on New Year’s Eve in the other Big D.

And Michigan State’s spirited fan base did its darndest to make it so, showing up in impressive fashion all over town for the last several days.

“Last year, playing against Baylor (in the Cotton Bowl), it was very entertaining and very live and very fun,” wide receiver R.J. Shelton was saying, of the Jan. 1 comeback win, 42-41, over Baylor.

“And it’s going to be probably twice as much as it was last year.

“It’s exciting. It’s great for us. It’s great for Spartan Nation, and it’s great for our alumni to see their team play in the college playoff system.”

Alabama wanted a neutral-site game when it cancelled its home-and-home series with Michigan State two years ago.

And that’s exactly what it got on Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl, which was a prize 364 days ago, when Michigan State opened the year with a win here, but had far larger stakes this time — with its turn in the College Football Playoff coming up, and the winner moving on to face Clemson in the national championship game Jan. 11.

Spartans alums, famous and not-so-much, found a way to get here, someway, somehow, through all the bad weather, all the airline issues, dollars be damned.

Magic Johnson made it here, and took up shop in a 50-yard-line suite.

Tom Izzo, heavy-hearted after the death of his father, Carl, on Monday, decided he had to make the trek here, too, and bring his top-ranked (for now) team with him, before Saturday’s game at Minnesota.

Izzo was chatting up athletic director Mark Hollis on the field, more than an hour before kickoff.

Whether football or basketball, things are all right in Sparty’s World, which took over Jerry’s World for arguably the biggest game in Michigan State football history, certainly in the last 40-plus years, roaring when coach Mark Dantonio made an appearance on the big screen — OK, the really big screen — during warm-ups.

In an interesting twist, MSU had the chance to open the year and close the year with victories in the Cotton Bowl.

“I’ve been a Michigan State fan my whole life, obviously, and going to games since I can remember,” said linebacker Riley Bullough, whose grandfather, father, two uncles and two brothers, one older and one younger, also suited up in Spartan green and white.

“To be able to be here now, be a starter and contribute to the team and be able to play in a playoff game like this is something that I’ve been dreaming about, you know, my whole life.”

Never mind, the College Football Playoff is just two years old.

Michigan State is the second Big Ten representative, following Ohio State, which stunned this same Alabama en route to the national championship a year ago.

That was the Spartans’ mission Thursday — to wear the underdog’s clothing one more time and shock the world, as they’ve done so much under Mark Dantonio, who’s done something with a program that Alabama’s current coach, Nick Saban, acknowledged he never could.

Dantonio has made Michigan State the preeminent power in the state, a state that had long been owned by a team in Ann Arbor, a fact that frustrated the heck out of an already-easily irritable Saban during his years in East Lansing.

Still, MSU always has its doubters. The national experts weren’t going out of the way to predict an upset Thursday night. But the experts didn’t give Michigan State a chance to beat Michigan with 11 seconds left and the Wolverines punting, either. They didn’t give Michigan State a chance to get here when they, unbelievably, blew a game in the waning moments in Nebraska. And they didn’t give Michigan State a chance to shut down Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State, without quarterback Connor Cook to boot, and advance to the Big Ten championship, where it spoiled Iowa’s perfect season with a drive for the ages.

At the tiny Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport earlier this week, gold-and-black fans lined up in droves for their flight to Pasadena, California, plenty content with a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State, a Rose Bowl participant two years ago, wouldn’t have been nearly as OK with that, not this year, not when the motto has been, “Reach Higher.”

Beating Alabama and playing for a national championship would certainly fall in the “Reach Higher” file. And anyway, it’s a new era of Spartans football, which was trying its best to give Spartans fans the perfect way to ring in the new year.

“The new era, it kind of hasn’t set in for me,” defensive lineman Joel Heath said. “After the season, I will have more of an opportunity to focus on that. But as far as that goes, it’s just a great feeling to be a part of a winning team and winning program, especially with basketball and football doing so well.

“It’s been good.”