Spartans looking ahead after devastating loss

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Arlington, Texas — For the first time in five years, things are different for Michigan State.

After four straight bowl wins, the Spartans head home to East Lansing contemplating a loss — a deflating one, at that — in the Cotton Bowl.

It came at the hands of Alabama, the last team to beat Michigan State in a bowl game. But since that point, things have changed dramatically for the Spartans.

No longer are they the upstart – the outsider trying to crack their way into the club of big-boy college football. They are a big boy now, with the national championship the realistic goal. Coming one win from reaching that title game only hardens the resolve.

Where Michigan State goes from here is the next critical question, the next major step in what coach Mark Dantonio has built in his nine seasons. First the Spartans figured out how to win big games in the regular season. Then came Big Ten championships and bowl-game success.

Wojo: Spartans smacked with reality they're not yet elite

Now, the Spartans must make that final move, maybe the most difficult.

"It's another step toward what we want to accomplish," junior left tackle Jack Conklin said. "Our goal is a national championship and this is another step closer and it will be motivational like the first time in the Big Ten championship. We were one step from going to the Rose Bowl, went to the Outback Bowl and won. This will be motivational like that and will push our team to work that much harder in the off-season.

"We've played the best competition in the nation the past few years. Now we know what it's like to play Alabama. Now we know how to prepare for it and know we have to play our best."

Their best wasn't good enough this time around. It might have been if the 2013 team had a chance to play in this game, but that's college football.

Seasons ebb and flow and the moment must be seized upon when it arrives. Michigan State's charge now is to prove this wasn't a one-time chance at seizing that opportunity.

Dantonio has turned Michigan State into a consistent winner, and there seems little doubt it will get another shot.

"I know these guys are gonna continue to build and Coach D will never be satisfied," said fifth-year senior cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, who played his final game on Thursday. "That is how it should be. I wouldn't be too surprised if Michigan State is in the playoffs next year. They have a tremendous team coming back. They have tremendous quarterbacks with Damion Terry and Tyler O'Connor. I think they'll do a tremendous job."

It's that quarterback spot that might be the most crucial position moving forward. Connor Cook was not good in his final game and he hasn't looked sharp since before he injured his right shoulder in mid-November.

But he was the key to so much success — he won 34 games over three seasons — that replacing him will be vital. O'Connor and Terry teamed up to get the win at Ohio State when Cook was out, but they'll be pushed in the off-season by redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and true freshman Messiah deWeaver.

If Michigan State wants to avoid a step back like 2012, whoever wins that job will have to hit the ground running. O'Connor has the most experience as he heads into his final season and he's looking forward to the opportunity.

"The biggest thing is I have to step up my leadership and it's not that people don't respect me but that is something I gotta do," O'Connor said. "It's hard to lead from the back. It's hard to sit behind someone who has won the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, Big Ten championships and try to lead in front of him.

"But I feel like I have a great grasp of the offense and reading defenses and things like that so I'm looking forward to the opportunity. This is hard and you can't just brush it off, but everybody that is coming back is already pretty excited about next year."

Quarterback won't be the only spot to fill.

Center Jack Allen is gone after an All-American season, as is Donavon Clark, who played both guard and tackle. The NFL is likely next for both.

What Conklin decides to do will have a huge impact on the team. If he returns for his final season, the offensive line has stability on the outside as right tackle Kodi Kieler comes back for his final season. If he opts for the NFL, the Spartans will be counted on inexperienced players to make a significant jump.

The defensive side of the ball sees significant losses, as well. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun, a two-time All-American, goes to the NFL while Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas also move on. Linebacker Darien Harris must be replaced and safety RJ Williamson played his final game, as well.

There is plenty of promise, however, on both sides of the ball.

The offense has a stable of running backs while the secondary could become a strength again as so many young players gained valuable experience this season. And the middle of the defensive line should be good again, led by Malik McDowell, while the linebacking corps is solid and should get Ed Davis back for one final season.

MSU football coach Mark Dantonio

"I'm proud of my team because this is a big accomplishment," McDowell said. "We've got to come back and do it again. … I think as long as we always improve then I'll be happy."

The Spartans will have a different look when they hit the field at Spartan Stadium again on Sept. 3 against Furman, but the approach won't change.

Neither will the expectations.

"We will be motivated again and have a chip on our shoulder," cornerback Darian Hicks said. "We're not gonna allow this same result to happen next year. We'll come back strong, faster, more physical. We're gonna have to earn that respect around the country and prove Michigan State should be talked about."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau