Towards the end of July, at the close of his press conference at the Big Ten Football Media day, Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio instilled a motto for his team.
Two words. That’s it. But those two words are somewhat of testament as to what this Michigan State football team has come to stand for these past couple of years. Not always the flashiest of teams or a program that commands the most respect, the Spartans have scratched and clawed away at everything they have and have truly earned every bit of it.
Flash-forward four months down the road since Dantonio first uttered this phrase and it’s clear that this Michigan State football team has done exactly that, now standing just one win away from the thing they’ve been chasing all season long: a Big Ten Title and a berth to the Rose Bowl.
The journey of this Michigan State football team will continue Saturday night, as the No. 10 Spartans (11-1, 8-0 Big Ten) take on the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0), winners of 24 straight, every game under head coach Urban Meyer
It hasn’t been an easy road for the Spartans to get to where they’re at, and their journey certainly isn’t over yet, but let’s take a look at how the Spartans got to where they will be Saturday night.
That was the score of the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in 2011 with the Wisconsin Badgers up three over the Michigan State Spartans with 1:57 to play.
In one of the most thrilling and back-and-forth games of that season, it had all come down to this.
On 4th and 3 at their own 26 yard line, Wisconsin lined up to punt the ball away to then senior quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Michigan State offense, who seemed almost destined to drive down the field and lead the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl since 1988.
However, what happened next is something most fans of Michigan State have done their best to erase from their memories ever since.
As the punt soared through the air and fell into the hands of return man Keshawn Martin, Spartan nation watched in horror as Martin returned the ball inside the Wisconsin 5 yard line, only to see it all called back due to a running into the kicker penalty by then sophomore Isaiah Lewis.
The penalty gave the Badgers a first down and with the Spartans having exhausted all of their timeouts, Wisconsin took the game as well as a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“I try not to think about it much,” Lewis said of the play. “It’s just a bad taste in my mouth…It kind of hurt for a while….But at the same time, you do have to let those things go so they don’t affect you in the future.”
For other Spartans on the team, the loss hit them especially hard, according to senior linebacker Max Bullough.
“There were people crying that I’d never thought I’d see cry,” Bullough said. “It was just unbelievable. To me, I was a sophomore. To me it wasn’t the end of the road, to me it was, we’ll be back here next year…To see the way those players reacted, I’ve never seen anything like it…I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a single game affect the amount of players that it did so negatively…Even for a week I remember guys like Kirk Cousins were still down.”
However, that next season would not be one where Michigan State would return to the Big Ten Championship game. No, the Spartans’ road back to this game has certainly been a rocky one.
Following a triple overtime victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl, Michigan State’s 2012 season was disappointing to say the least. Having entered into the season ranked as high as 13 in some of the preseason polls, the Spartans ended up sputtering to a 7-6 record, a season which included five losses of a combined 13 points to Big Ten opponents.
By the time the next season rolled around, while the defense was once again expected to be dominant, several questions lingered on the offensive side of the ball, and another mediocre season was expected to be in the works for 2013.
However, what followed was something not many saw coming. While the defense proved to be one of the top units in the nation, over the course of the season, things seemingly fell into place for the Spartans. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook emerged as a efficient passer and junior running back Jeremy Langford stepped up as a work horse back.
And as the Spartans continued to come to play week after week, all of these players who stepped up over the course of the season have brought Michigan State to where they are today: One win away from their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988 and a few questionable pass interference calls away from essentially a play-in game to the National Championship.
“When you look at what we’ve tried to do and our motto really all season long has been to chase it, and that’s what we’ve done,” Dantonio said. “We’ve sort of come after every football team that we’ve played. Nothing has been easy as we’ve gone through the season, and I said way back when that they would be the ones, and now we have this opportunity to prove that.”
Dantonio has led this program to some of its most successive seasons in school history, which includes seven bowl appearances, three of which being 11-win seasons, something that had never been done before at Michigan State until Dantonio took over the role as head coach.
Is Dantonio the greatest coach in MSU football history? That’s something that could be up for debate in a different story, but one thing thing is for certain: ever since Dantonio arrived in East Lansing as head coach of the Spartans, he has really made this program his and his teams have truly been chasing it ever since Dantonio arrived in 2006.
An example of this couldn’t be anymore prevalent in Dantonio’s players, where you can see a representation of Dantonio’s character in the players that have become staples and leaders of this Michigan State program. And none so much as senior linebacker Max Bullough, the unquestioned leader of the Michigan State defense, who most recently gave one of the most spirited press conferences the MSU media has seen from a player in a long time.
“It’s what we talk about it winter conditioning. It’s what we talk about in summer conditioning and spring ball and camp,” Bullough said when talking about the Rose Bowl. “All those things in reality you don’t want to do…That’s what makes college football hard and that’s kind of the goal and the vision and what you talk about every day in order to get through those things.”
“We haven’t been there in a long time so it’s kind of a neat thing for us to have the opportunity to make all those things we talk about…To make that a tangible feeling. To be able to feel that feeling and know what it’s like. To say I’ve done it. To say we’ve brought Michigan State back to where we think it should be. I think that creates a tangible goal instead a dream or a vision that’s out in front of you all the time.”
So on Saturday night when the bright lights are on and the game kicks off between the Spartans and the Buckeyes in Indianapolis, you’d better believe that Dantonio’s team, much like they have all season long, will be chasing it.
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