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Niyo: Motivated Spartans playing underdog card again

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Chicago — They don’t have to look far — or even listen all that closely — to find the added motivation.

For Mark Dantonio and his football program, it’s everywhere they want it to be. And Thursday, as expected, it was anywhere the coach and some of his senior leaders went as Michigan State kicked off the annual Big Ten media day festivities.

Hours after the first coaches’ balloting was released, with Michigan State ranked No. 6 in the country — the school’s highest preseason ranking in the 25-year history of the poll — Dantonio and his players somehow found themselves discussing disrespect. And sharing their views about being overlooked.

“I know your question,” senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said, cutting off a reporter with a smile near the beginning of his podium session. “Let me ask it for you: ‘So, since you guys are highly-ranked this year and been doing well, do you still think you’re underdogs?’ Yes. Yes.”

And yes, after another wave of cameras and recorders came crashing in a bit later, someone asked Calhoun, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, about Ohio State and all the preseason praise for the defending national champs.

“Chip on our shoulder,” Calhoun laughed. “See what I mean? It finds me. I don’t even have to do anything.”

No, they don’t. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try to remind themselves, in ways both subtle and not, fueling their own competitive fire.

Jack Allen, the team’s All-American center, said the team’s weightlifting shirts this summer were emblazoned with a Spartans helmet on a poker chip. On the shoulder, of course.

“No one has really shown us much respect — I think we’re used to that,” said Allen, the fifth-year senior anchoring what figures to be one of the strongest units this fall. “I still look at us as underdogs because the talk is always Michigan-Ohio State.

“It has been that way forever in the Big Ten, and I think as a team we’re fine with that.”

Extra motivation

And why not? For the team leaders — from the staff to the players’ unity council — it makes their job easy, all this talk about the big, bad Buckeyes and their bare-chested rival in Ann Arbor.

Calhoun offered up a grinning “no comment” when someone mentioned “Harbaugh mania.” But he couldn’t stay quiet when asked about the photos of Michigan’s coach going shirtless at a satellite camp in Alabama this summer.

“I think he’s a handsome man,” Calhoun deadpanned. “I’m glad he got out there to take a picture.”

The Spartans quarterback, Connor Cook, playfully suggested Dantonio should try it, too, but his coach wasn’t biting.

Nor was he feeding the narrative, the one he spent years drilling into his program’s psyche.

“We’re three deep right here,” he said, motioning to the standing-room-only crowd around his table inside the Hyatt Regency ballroom. “I think Michigan State gets a lot of credit.”

They do, clearly. And coming off a fourth 11-win season in five years, not to mention consecutive top-five finishes in the national rankings, no one’s really overlooking this team.

Their own goals

The Harbaugh hype is just that, for now. (As the fourth Wolverines coach in his nine-year tenure with the Spartans, “That’s a statement in itself,” Dantonio wryly noted.) And the Buckeyes are simply loaded, unbeaten in the Big Ten regular season (24-0) in Meyer’s first three seasons in Columbus and ranked first on all but two of the 64 ballots in the new coaches’ poll.

“Honestly, they deserve that,” Calhoun agreed. “They won the national championship.”

And honestly, that’s the goal now at Michigan State, as the team motto — “Reach higher” — confidently suggests.

“We’re not focused on preseason polls and accolades,” said Calhoun, the leader of a defensive that Dantonio says could be his best yet in East Lansing. “I’m more focused on Michigan State. How can we be better? How can we make it to the national championship game?”

There are holes to fill, both in the press box, where Pat Narduzzi’s defensive play-calling will be missed, and in the press coverage, where the secondary is a primary concern heading into fall camp. Michigan State’s schedule certainly has its share of roadblocks as well.

But the pieces are in place. The chip is, too, apparently. And in that sense, Cook said, nodding, “Nothing really has changed.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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