Jan. 2, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
PASADENA, Calif. - There's a new slogan for Michigan State football that obliterates once and for all those that have been associated over the years with futility and frustration.
It was finely crafted during Mark Dantonio's seventh season as head coach, which the Spartans began unranked with an offense that commanded no respect, a highly touted defense reliant on players no one else noticed or wanted, and no reason by anybody outside the program to believe that they belonged in the national conversation.
It ended in the 100th Rose Bowl with a flying tackle, by a former walk-on playing in place of the star middle linebacker left home for disciplinary reasons, on fourth-and-1 to seal a 24-20 victory against No. 5 Stanford.
"I just want to say, that's the Spartan way," said offensive tackle Fou Fonoti, the junior college transfer from nearby Lakewood, Calif., who wouldn't have even been playing in Wednesday's game had he not fortuitously broken his foot last season. "Earned, never given.
"Like Coach D talked about, we took care of our own work and hopefully, God willing, in the years to come people's mind-set of Michigan State will definitely change."
A few feet away from stepping off the storied turf where so much history had been made and into the tunnel to the victorious locker room, Dantonio was asked if this was the biggest win he had ever been associated with?
"They're all big," he said before resizing up the context of moment. "Yes!"
Michigan State's 10th consecutive win - equaling a streak accomplished in school history only by the 1965 National Champions - raised its record to an unprecedented 13-1 and put the Dantonio era alongside those of coaching legends "Biggie" Munn and Duffy Daugherty in terms of success.
Depending on how the remaining bowls and the National Championship Game play out, the fourth-ranked Spartans could end up No. 2 or 3, and will place the highest they've been in the final polls since they were second in '66, regardless.
"It's sort of living the dream," Dantonio said. "I woke this morning and I knew the day might be very, very special. If we played hard, great things were going to happen. We had possibilities and that's what we did.
"No magic to it. We just kept playing, found a way to make plays."
Hollywood can find the script for a classically inspiring underdog rises-to-the-challenge story right in its own backyard. It's called the Rose Bowl "Play-by-Play Summary," and in it can be found enough plot twists to satisfy any audience.
First, Michigan State's nation-leading defense created a foreboding sense of drama by giving up a touchdown on Stanford's game-opening, seven-play, 77-yard drive that ended on Tyler Gaffney's 16-yard scoring run.
By the end of the first quarter, MSU trailed 10-0. And while the offense rallied to make it a three-point game on Jeremy Langford's 2-yard touchdown run, it appeared, however, the Spartans' luck was running out. Quarterback Connor Cook's loopy screen pass was picked off by Cardinal linebacker Kevin Anderson, who returned it 40 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
True to its nature, however, Michigan State rose to the occasion. Cook heated up the two-minute drill with passes of 24 and 37 yards, respectively, to Tony Lippett and Bennie Fowler, the veteran receivers who earlier in the season couldn't crack the starting lineup. The possession ended when Cook kept the play alive by scrambling to his right and throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Trevon Pendleton, another former walk-on ideally suited for MSU's opportunity-for-all Land-Grant philosophy, with 28 seconds remaining in the first half.
True freshman kicker Michael Geiger tied the score with 31-yard field goal at the end of the first drive of the second half. And just as MSU scored the first and last 17 points of its Big Ten Championship Game win over Ohio State, it again reached 17 unanswered points when Cook threw a perfectly timed, 25-yard touchdown pass down the middle to Lippett for a 24-17 lead.
All that was left was for the defense to keep Stanford out of the end zone the rest of the way. After forcing the Cardinal to settle for a 39-yard field goal with 4:15 remaining, the Spartans had to confront one more threat without Max Bullough, the suspended linebacker many thought the defense couldn't function without.
On fourth-and-1 at the Stanford 34-yard line, Bullough's emergency replacement, Kyler Elsworth, a fifth-year senior who began his career as a lowly walk-on, launched himself high through the air to meet leaping Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt head-on for no gain.
It was Elsworth's last of four tackles in the game and earned him Defensive Player of the Game honors. On the other side of the ball, Cook completed 22-of-36 passes for a career-high 332 yards - the third-highest total by a Spartan in a bowl - two touchdowns and an interception.
"We've always believed in ourselves, no matter what the situation is," Cook said. "If we're down, guys rally around each other. I think everyone on the whole football team is very optimistic, and the coaches put that in our minds.
"Everyone on the whole football team pretty much had the same mind-set for every week, go 1-0 and the winning and the success will take care of itself. We stuck to the plan, and here we are Rose Bowl Champs."
The grander plan is one designed for a team supplemented with low- and no-star players like Elsworth and Pendleton, under-recruited prospects like cornerback Darqueze Dennard who rose from obscurity to be named consensus All-American and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, and turnarounds like Lippett, who had a career-high 94 yards and a touchdown on five catches and Fowler, who had 97 yards on two receptions, including a sensational 60-yard catch-and-run that set up Geiger's field goal.
"A lot of guys just came to the forefront because we had to have leaders on the offensive side and more leaders on the defensive side," said Travis Jackson, who played every snap at right guard in place of the injured Dan France. "So when we went through those tough times, it really shaped a lot of guys and a lot of guys stepped up.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to Kyler Elsworth today. He's been working for this shot, and it's tough when you're playing behind Max Bullough, who's a heckuva player. There are so many great guys on this team and so many leaders, and the chemistry is just off the charts. (France) grabbed me before the game and said, `I'm going to be your biggest cheerleader today.' That pretty much sums up our season and our team, a senior coming up to a junior at the same position and saying that. That's unheard of."
The Spartans greeted each prediction of failure, made before Cook and Langford and the receiving corps emerged earlier in the season and revived at the very end with the loss of Bullough, with an air of defiance.
"It just shows you about the team and the coaching staff and the guys we bring in," Dennard said. "We bring in hard-grit guys who are ready to play. We all trust each other, and when it's your time to step up, that's what we do. The stars (recruiting ratings) are kind of overrated. It's about the coaching and the guys you bring in. We have the mind-set of next guy up, and that's what happened."
Dantonio said for the week leading up to the game that the mission wasn't to just play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years, but show it "belonged" with the nation's top teams by winning.
"Just from playing a great team like Stanford that's been in four straight BCS games and being in the Top-10 every year and produces tons of NFL players just shows you that Michigan State is one of those elite programs and we should get respect," Dennard said.
It's often said that winning solves whatever problems a program faces, and with its first victory in a BCS game in as many chances, a school-record 42 victories by the senior class and third Rose Bowl title in five trips to Pasadena, there's no reason MSU can't move on to even bigger and better things, according to Dantonio.
"Our plan is to keep winning," he said. "Our plan is, we were one (loss against Notre Dame) away. I said `Why not us?' (for National Championship consideration) a couple weeks ago. I think we can compete with anybody in this country.
"You've got to execute, you've got to find the inches and more importantly, probably, you've got to believe that you belong there, too. You can't second-guess yourself. You have to dream big. It's been done here before and I think the responsibility is that you can do it again."