Oct. 23, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Dealing with success is a problem every team wants.
Solving it, however, is fraught with challenges. For one thing, how do you go about convincing anyone that something so good can end up being so bad?
Complacency, cockiness and conceit are undesirable side-effects.
At 6-1 overall and leading the Big Ten's Legends Division with a 3-0 record, Michigan State has yet to display any of the telltale signs of overconfidence and entitlement. Nevertheless, coach Mark Dantonio isn't taking any chances going into Saturday's game at Illinois.
"We need to continue to handle adversity as we move through this season, and handle success as well," he said at the top of his weekly press conference. "And I think right now, the aspect of handling success is as important as anything."
Some coaches refer to the kind of success the Spartans have enjoyed so far as fool's gold - it looks valuable, but isn't worth anything.
While Michigan State has done a creditable job of navigating through the first seven games of the schedule pretty much as expected, it has yet to make a bold statement indicating it has arrived on the national scene with either a signature win or with breathtakingly dominant performances.
At least the pollsters, who continue to keep the Spartans out of the Top 25, have yet to be convinced.
The defense leads the nation and its statistical profile is very impressive, indeed. But its biggest challenges have yet to be tackled, beginning with a diverse Fighting Illini offense that's averaging 35 points a game.
The offense didn't raise a red flag, despite scoring just one touchdown in last week's 14-7 win against Purdue, by appearing flat or listless, just by being inconsistent. It clearly has more work to do before it can be considered a force, irresistible or otherwise.
It's no wonder Dantonio is taking steps to make sure the Spartans aren't confusing having success with being a success, and has been since Day 1, according to running back Jeremy Langford, who's coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances.
"We know that one loss can hurt us because there are other teams that are undefeated, and to make it to the Big Ten Championship Game, there's a good chance we'll have to stay undefeated," he said. "We have to know that if we keep playing hard, it will all pay off at the end. We still remember last year when we lost some close games, and since the beginning of camp Coach D has been talking about finding the inches.
"I know that as a team, we want to be great, but to do that it takes things like coming through with a win on the road."
The momentum Michigan State has generated through seven games is more like an undercurrent than a tidal wave at this point, but there are indications its building with accomplishments such as its first Big Ten shutout in 14 years.
Senior middle linebacker Max Bullough, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, knows it will take time, and victories, to earn back the respect MSU got with consecutive 11-win seasons in 2010-11. The process that began out of desperation to qualify for a bowl and finish with a winning record last season continues.
"I think coming off last season, the way it happened, it's hard not to have that (us-against-the-world) mentality at the beginning," Bullough said. "I think we've built up our success a little bit this year, sitting at 6-1, so there's a little bit less of that mindset."
In some ways, Bullough wishes the Spartans could duplicate the way they felt going into the win-or-go-home, regular-season finale at Minnesota for Illinois and each of its remaining games.
"It's handling two different things," he said. "It's handling adversity or it's handling success, and I think the latter is more difficult. When you're back's against the wall, you have nowhere to go but forward and out. You're just going to get angry and do more because of that.
"And when you're sitting in a position of success, I think there's a need to keep perspective and understand what got you to where you are, and keep the pedal down."
The killer instinct that's necessary to achieve success on the football field, or business and other walks of life, comes out naturally when fueled by raw emotion. Producing it with a mental awareness from what appears to be a position of strength is trickier, but senior outside linebacker Denicos Allen believes the Spartans are suitably equipped.
"Last year, we had players who were trying to do too much and trying to make too many plays considering the situation we were in and I think that didn't help us," he said. "They were trying to do more than what they should be doing, and weren't disciplined.
"This year, we have trust in everybody. We do what we have to do, and are fundamentally sound. It is different from when you're about to be eliminated than when you're going for a championship. Everything's in our hands, and we know that."
The upside about having success at this point, as weird as that sounds, is that is has bred confidence, which Allen conceded was in short supply last season after losing so many close finishes.
"It was kind of rough because we didn't know what was going to happen going into each game, and we just went out and played, and hopefully, we won," Allen said. "This year, we go into every game thinking we're going to win and at the same time, we don't look past any opponent."
If Michigan State can't go into Illinois with an air of desperation, it still has the fear of Sunday to remind them of the success, past and future, that's at stake.
"The minute you look past someone is the minute you're looking back on Sunday and then the next week doesn't mean as much anymore," Bullough said. "I'm surprised that we're (not in the Top 25) at 6-1 and I think we should be in it, but I don't really care at this point.
"I just want to be where we want to be at the end. I just want to do things we can control, and I can't control being in the Top 25 in Week 7. We'll let that take care of itself."
Handling success is No. 1 on MSU's list of things it can control.