July 24, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
CHICAGO - Great teams, outstanding players and successful coaches all have what is commonly referred to as the "it factor," an ambiguous quality that separates the best from the rest.
And, coming off a frustrating season of close calls and near misses culminating with an unsatisfactory 7-6 record, Michigan State will be in pursuit of "it", coach Mark Dantonio revealed Wednesday at the opening session of the Big Ten Kickoff Media Days.
In several cases, "it" was a mere inch or two beyond the Spartans' grasp or a split-second decision that caused an apparent win to devolve into a loss. Michigan State's final five defeats came by an average of 2.6 points.
The Iowa game was settled in double overtime. The defeat at Michigan came despite keeping the Wolverines from scoring a touchdown. And the Nebraska game was lost in the final 10 seconds.
Rather than relegate those destructive elements to the waste bin of history, the Spartans will try to use them to their advantage with a rallying cry formulated in true Dantonio fashion - direct and to the point.
"This year's mantra?" he said. "Chase it."
If uttered with a snarl while reaching down to find what it takes to close the gap no more than the space between a thumb and index finger or to make the right decision at the right time, then so much the better.
"2012 was a year of the inches we didn't come up with," Dantonio said. "We sort of feel like our football team has a little bit of an edge to them right now."
Dantonio is hoping for a carryover effect that returns whatever it was that MSU had during back-to-back 11-win seasons that produced a Big Ten co-championship in 2010 and the inaugural Legends Division title in 2011.
"You're always going to be as good as your experiences allow you to be, and your past experiences sort of shape you," he said. "That's why you don't see a lot of true freshmen playing. They have no college experience to draw from. When you've been in the heat of the game, when you've been down, when you're trying to get that last first down or last point to try to win the football game - whether you do or you don't, you gain from the experience of it.
"I think our players can taste how close they were. They've got an edge to them in terms how they're working and we have great senior leadership. We won the bowl game, and that was very positive for us because it sort of catapulted us into 2013. At the same time, there were a lot of unfinished things that happened on the football field last year that felt like if we would have played a little bit better, made a play here or made a call there, or something would have fallen the other way, we would have been much more successful."
Michigan State has bid an early farewell to running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston, who gave up their senior seasons in favor of playing in the NFL. But, the Spartans have doubled their experience quotient from nine seniors on the team in `12, to 18 on the travel roster in '13, Dantonio said.
Slogans don't win football games. However, Dennard and middle linebacker Max Bullough, a pair of preseason All-Americans on what has the makings to be one of the nation's preeminent defenses, said the edge of which Dantonio speaks is palpable.
"The failures we had last year is where it really originates," Bullough said. "We had a lot of success the two years before that, so not having as a good year we wanted to naturally creates a chip on the shoulders of the guys who want to win.
"It's subconscious as much as anything. It's more of just a feeling you have day in and day out. Michigan didn't score (a touchdown) on us, and we still lose that game. Or it's a call here or a call there, or a mess-up on our part or not performing as well as we were capable of."
This driving force isn't something an outsider is capable of perceiving - at least not until game day.
"It's a feeling in the back of your mind and it's something you notice when you're there," Bullough said. "But you have to be there everyday and you have to be someone who's around the team, knows the team and knows the players to really understand how that manifests itself.
"But there definitely is an edge in the air. Guys are challenging themselves and challenging this team to be better than we were a year ago."
Elbert Hubbard, the American writer and philosopher, wrote: "A failure is a man who blundered but is not capable of cashing in on the experience."
The Spartans have been trading in the currency of their shortcomings ever since their come-from-behind victory over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where they found the inches to avoid finishing below .500.
"Throughout winter conditioning, spring ball and summer workouts, we've all been working out pretty much with a chip on our shoulder," Dennard said. "We've been hungry just like Coach (Harlon) Barnett (defensive backs) always elaborates in our meeting room. Humble and hungry is how the whole team is presenting themselves right now and how we're going to be going forward in the season.
"We all know we were just a couple inches or a couple of plays away from being an 11-1 team, realistically. Pretty much what motivates us is that we know we were right there last year and now we've got to make those plays. That gives us confidence we can be on top this year."
It will be up to the offense to complement a defensive unit Dantonio unabashedly said is "one of the premier defenses in the country."
Questions have to be answered, however, at quarterback, where Andrew Maxwell will have to withstand legitimate challenges from Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and true freshman Damion Terry to maintain his status as the No. 1 signal-caller.
The running back situation also remains clouded as former linebacker and high school quarterback Riley Bullough enters the season with aspirations of being the next Mike Alstott. And, the situations at tight end and wide receiver have to be sorted out.
But if it really does all starts up front, as coaches like to say, the offensive line, where seven players with starting experience return, is in good shape. Dantonio said the line, with its selfless nature, is setting the tone for the team.
"Whatever helps the team, we're willing to do," said fifth-year senior left guard Blake Treadwell. "It's going to be more about how we finish this year. For me personally, in my senior year I want to make sure I have no regrets, have a great year and really enjoy every game we play, and hopefully at the end of the year we can earn some respect.
"By having that edge, you play with hunger, you want to prove people wrong and do some things that have not been done before. Certain games got ahead of us last year and it's still fresh in my mind what happened. We were so close and you think you're going there and it doesn't happen. The main thing that will drive me is knowing the game can change on any play and you must give it your all on every snap."
Should the Spartans maintain their edge from start to finish, this team may sign off with the words: "Caught it."