East Lansing — Shilique Calhoun was uncharacteristically quiet before Michigan State’s last game. Quiet enough that his teammates weren’t entirely sure what to expect from the Spartans all-Big Ten defensive end.
But they didn’t have to wait long to find out, and they certainly didn’t have to worry, as Calhoun turned in a dominant performance — including two sacks and a forced fumble — to help lead Michigan State to a 16-13 victory over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
“That was the best game I’ve ever seen Shilique play,” said defensive end Demetrius Cooper, a redshirt sophomore who followed Calhoun’s lead — and his in-game coaching — to record a sack of his own in the final minute against the Hawkeyes.
And with time ticking down on Calhoun’s college career, that is probably no coincidence.
Maybe it’s not as simple as him saving his best for last. But at the end of a senior season that left some — including NFL scouts, perhaps — wanting more, Calhoun is playing like he does, too.
“Obviously now it’s show time, time to get it done,” defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said when asked about Calhoun’s curtain call. “Big-time players show up at big times and big-time games. So we’re happy to see that. He really turned it on versus Iowa.”
And now that Michigan State’s attention has turned to a Dec. 31 playoff showdown against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, Calhoun — effervescent as ever when he met with the media Wednesday morning — sounds like he’s ready to make some more noise.
Star end saw it
As his coach talked about “an opportunity to go full circle” in Dallas, where Michigan State began 2015 with another program win over Baylor — Calhoun was circling back to the conversations he’d had with fellow senior co-captain Darien Harris.
“We talked about it a lot, ‘Yeah, we want to be national champions,’ ” Calhoun said.
But did they really see it happening?
“I can honestly say I did,” said Calhoun, who passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft after last season. “When I said I wanted to come back, that opportunity to play on a big-time stage and maybe make it to a national championship, that was something that I saw. I understood our team. I knew what we had.”
So did Mark Dantonio, who made a point of saying so last winter, when Calhoun and quarterback Connor Cook made it official they’d be back for a fifth year.
“Last year, I sat there on (national) signing day (in February) and said, ‘Hey, our two biggest recruits — the two guys that have the biggest impact on our football team that we recruited this year — are Connor Cook and Shilique Calhoun,’ ” Dantonio said. “And one of those reasons is to play in this type of game, at this type of moment.”
It wasn’t, quite frankly, the reason Calhoun ended up in East Lansing back in 2011, a three-star recruit from Middletown (N.J.) North who chose Michigan State over home-state Rutgers.
“I honestly just wanted to win games when I came here,” said Calhoun, whose high school team finished 2-8 his senior year. “My biggest thing was being a part of this program and winning games and feeling something special.”
‘We love challenges’
But now he’s part of the winningest senior class (43-10) in Michigan State history. And not just any part, either, leading the team with 101/2 sacks and 141/2 tackles for loss this season. The gregarious 23-year-old also is a two-time captain whose “big personality” keeps everyone smiling, coaches included.
“He can probably run this press conference better than I could,” Dantonio joked Tuesday. “You guys have seen him in action. … He comes to practice and enjoys practice. He enjoys messing around, having fun with the game. He’s a dynamic football player. But just as important, I think he’s a dynamic person.”
The important task now, though, is stopping a dynamite running back in Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who piled up a Southeastern Conference-record 1,986 rushing yards this season.
Michigan State ranked 15th nationally in run defense, and in its four biggest wins — Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa — it allowed 2.5 yards per carry.
“We love challenges,” said Calhoun, who received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board last winter. “I think it’ll be a great challenge for our program and our D-line.
“But not only that,” he added with a smile. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase our talents.”