Jan. 8, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun didn't come from the ranks of the relative unknown to earn National Defensive Player of the Year honors by being shy and retiring.
Bold, aggressive and engaging, Calhoun isn't holding anything back now while setting the Spartans' sights for 2014 as the newly minted Rose Bowl and Big Ten Champions.
"Be No. 1, of course," Calhoun said Tuesday night before the fifth-ranked MSU basketball team defeated No. 3 Ohio State, 72-68 in overtime, at the Breslin Center.
"Our motivation coming into this year is strive to be No. 1; if you want to make it to the National Championship, don't let anything stop you.
"That's where we want to be because we're still chasing it."
The Spartans might be accused of having an overinflated opinion of their worth if not for what they just accomplished:
- They didn't let a 26-year absence from the Rose Bowl stop them finally returning to Pasadena, where they twice overcame 10-point deficits - their largest of the season - to defeat Pac-12 champ Stanford, 24-20.
- They didn't let being unranked through their first eight games stop them from beating all nine Big Ten opponents, including No. 2 Ohio State in the title game, by an unprecedented 10 points or more (since the conference went to an eight-game schedule in 1971) and earning their first BCS bid.
- And, they didn't allow years of being overshadowed prevent them from rising to No. 3 in the final polls, their highest placement since the beloved Bubba Smith and George Webster-led squads finished No. 2 in 1966 and No. 1 in '65.
Michigan State may have to get re-acclimated to the rarified air its breathing as the only Big Ten team to win 13 games and not win the National Championship, but the path it took to get there in seven years under head coach Mark Dantonio is familiar and well-established.
Calhoun, who received his College Football Performance Awards crystal trophy during a second-half timeout at the basketball game, personifies the Spartan Way.
"We thought we would (finish No. 2), but we're not worried about where we're ranked," he said. "Just like last year, we weren't highly ranked or anything like that. We just need to work our way up, and play hard every game and hopefully make it to the top."
Calhoun admitted it was bittersweet watching Florida State defeat Auburn in the final national title game of the BCS era Monday night, especially knowing that next season the Rose Bowl will host a semifinal in the four-team playoff.
"I knew we could be there, but we'll make it there this year," Calhoun said. "I'll leave it at that."
The Spartans have already covered so much ground since being manhandled by Alabama, 49-7, in the Capital One Bowl at the end of the 2010 season. Since then, they defeated Georgia in the Outback Bowl, TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the Cardinal in its second-straight Rose Bowl and fourth-consecutive BCS appearance.
Dantonio would have welcomed a chance to match the Spartans, with their nation-leading defense, vastly improved offense and solid special teams, against the Seminoles or the Tigers.
"You know, watching last night's game you had the feeling like we could hang in there, and you feel like the gap has closed a little bit in terms of the elite programs in the country," he said. "It was great to be one of the BCS teams competing and we felt like we belonged."
The task now is to make sure the Spartans didn't make it into the top three on a one-year pass.
"First of all, you're very goal-oriented as a program and as people," Dantonio said. "We strived to make this goal and it's taken seven years to get here. The next step is what we do with these opportunities. You just don't stand still. Nobody ever stands still.
"This is an opportunity and you want to move forward from here - whether that's go beyond that which you never might have thought was possible here, or to re-attain these things and do things again and allow other people to have that same type of feeling. There's no question that we're still goal-oriented here and still moving forward."
The Spartans feel they are in position to capitalize on their championships in a way MSU hasn't done since the 1950s and mid-60s.
The offense came out of nowhere with an untested quarterback and running back and unproven receiving corps to assert itself forcefully, to the tune of nearly 400 total yards, against the Pac-12's top defense. Michigan State will miss wideout Bennie Fowler and offensive linemen Blake Treadwell, Fou Fonoti and Dan France, but everybody else returns, including quarterback and Rose Bowl Offensive Player of the Game Connor Cook.
With 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns, Jeremy Langford, the tailback no one saw coming after the first five games, will go into next season with a full head of steam. Meantime, much of MSU's offensive success can be tied directly to the depth that's been developed and which made for a healthy rotation on the line and at receiver.
The defense says goodbye to some of the conference's most respected and decorated players, from Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Darqueze Dennard to outside linebacker Denicos Allen to hard-hitting strong safety Isaiah Lewis and heady middle linebacker Max Bullough.
But, a host of proven underclassmen, such as defensive backs Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond and linebackers Taiwan Jones and Ed Davis, in starting and backup roles have been primed to pick up the reins.
If the work the Spartans put in during the last offseason allowed them to find the inches missing while going 7-6 in 2012, Langford doesn't expect strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie and Dantonio to let up on them at this point.
"We did something big," Langford said. "But Coach Mannie and Coach D said, just don't become complacent, and don't feel entitled and don't become soft, which we're not as a team. We have to keep working even harder because nothing's going to be given to us and there's still going to be doubters out there.
"And, don't get overwhelmed by people believing in you now because before, there were plenty of times when no one believed in us and we just kept working as a team and stayed together."
Furthermore, it's not like MSU has made its case once and for all.
FootballOutsiders.com, which since 2009 has been ranking teams using a complex formula based on four components including the success rate of every single play run by every single team, has the Spartans ranked No. 6 in the nation, three spots behind Stanford. And, even though the ink on the final 2013 polls is barely dry, ESPN has already dropped Michigan State three spots, to sixth, heading into 2014.
That's fine by Cook.
"We always use stuff like that as motivation and I think you saw that this year with people underestimating us," he said. "We're always the underdog, and anytime you have the naysayers out there, you always want to prove them wrong.
"After winning the Rose Bowl and being Big Ten Champs, expectations are so high and anything less than that is a failure. That puts us on the map to be a national championship contender year after year. The expectations are sky high."
And that's fine by Dantonio.
"Sometimes you just don't know really what's going to be around the corner," he said. "We had the team meeting (Tuesday) and I looked over at Connor Cook, and I said, you think back to last summer or last year at this time, and would you be able to sit there say in your wildest dreams that you were going to be the MVP in the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten Championship Game?
"I looked over at Shilique and said would you ever have dreamed that after playing some as a redshirt freshman that you would be named the outstanding defensive lineman by (the CFPA)?"
Much of this may be new to the Spartans, but it isn't for Dantonio, who was Ohio State's defensive coordinator when it won its last national championship.
"Success, once you've tasted it a little bit you want to keep it," he said. "That's what I got out of the Ohio State process. When we were successful in `02 and undefeated, we went the next eight games and didn't lose. We ended up 11-2 that year. Once you tasted that type of success and you understand what it took to get you there, you have a better chance of getting there again, resurfacing."
Boldly and aggressively.