Nov. 13, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - All that matters to the Michigan State football team these days is next season.
No, not as in 2014.
Not even as in the final one-fourth of '13.
For now, a season is comprised of the upcoming game, on Saturday, at Nebraska.
Win it, and the 14th-ranked Spartans will zero in on the one-game season after that, but that can wait till next week.
It's a new spin on the old take-`em-one-game-at-a-time approach, but what better way to get into a frame of mind for winning a championship than to play every game like it's for one.
"I think we've just got to continue to have the same attitude that we've had all year," said quarterback Connor Cook. "We always go into every single game, especially with the Big Ten games, with every game meaning everything.
"Our first Big Ten game was just as important as this game. We know it's a big game. The coaches know, we know and I think as long as we just go into the game with the mindset we've got to go 1-0, I think we'll be OK."
Coming out of Lincoln with a win would be Michigan State's first in eight meetings with the Cornhuskers dating back to 1914. Under head coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans lost both showdowns with Nebraska since it joined the conference in 2011.
And if Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) secures a share of its second Legends Division championship by beating the Huskers (7-2, 4-1), it will clinch a spot in Big Ten Championship Game at Indianapolis with a victory against Northwestern or Minnesota.
A loss, however, would put MSU and Nebraska into a first-place deadlock and the Spartans in the position of possibly needing help from other teams (namely Penn State and/or Iowa), due to tie-breaker considerations, to get back to the championship game for the second time in three seasons.
While it's not a no-more-tomorrows scenario, defensive end Shilique Calhoun understands that the cure for all anxiety is winning.
"This year, the biggest focus is on, `Don't let that opportunity slip by you,' " he said. "Coach D always says, `You will be the ones,' so we're trying to make this year known as we're going to be the ones. We're not going to be like, `Well, maybe next year.'
"This is an opportunity now and this is such a big game, we don't want to let any game go to waste. You have to definitely try and take hold of it and grasp it now and don't wait for someone else to do it. It's big now and something that we've tried to focus on every day, that every game is our last and you never know when your time will be up, so try to make the most of it."
Senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard has already suffered enough heartbreak at Nebraska's expense.
Last season, what might have been a victory-sealing, 96-yard interception return for a touchdown by Dennard, was nullified by controversial personal foul penalty against a teammate. Then, an interference call against Dennard gave the Cornhuskers a new set of downs, which they used to score the game-winning touchdown on a 5-yard pass from quarterback Taylor Martinez to Jamal Turner with six seconds remaining.
Like all good defensive backs, Dennard isn't haunted by anything even though he's been asked about his negated runback "well over 100" times during the interim. But looking back serves no more purpose than looking too far ahead.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Dennard said. "I tell (our) guys, just focus on this game, take it one game at a time, put all our chips into Nebraska, because the biggest game is the next game up. With all our goals still in front of us, yeah, you can kind of peek and be excited a little bit and look ahead a little bit, but at the same time we've just got to stay focused and get that tunnel vision. I think every guy in the locker room has got it, and we're all just focused on this one game right now.
"You can read (the press clippings) at the end of the season. We've got this one opportunity. We're chasing greatness right now, and we have a great opportunity in front of us, and just don't look too far ahead because that's what a lot of teams do and end up slipping or messing up."
If it sounds like the Spartans are pulling out all the stops on the motivational front to be at their best against Nebraska, it's because they are. Even Dantonio pointed out that the Cornhuskers are the only Big Ten team MSU hasn't beaten during his tenure, and wiping that slate clean is "a goal."
But, it's not like that's going to be on Cook, Dennard or any other Spartan's mind beyond the opening kickoff.
"There are bigger and more important things to worry about," Dantonio said. "We've got to beat Nebraska to accomplish our goals, and that's why it's such a big game. The bottom can fall out on you at any time if you don't take care of fundamentals, if you don't do the little things, if you're not emotionally ready.
"Hopefully our players understand that. That's part of being a team, and that's why they judge you at the end of the season. There's a lot of football teams that were in the Top 10 at the beginning of the season that are nowhere to be found right now, and then there's some others that have driven their way up the rankings. We'll find out where we're at the end."
Beating Michigan, 29-6, two weeks ago satisfied one set of incentives, and as the Spartans make their way though the remaining championship "seasons," they will be vigilant to find ways to be 1-0 in each one.
"That game, for its reasons within the state, was very important," said offensive line coach Mark Staten. "This game, for the overall structure of the Big Ten (is very important).
"Each game provides new challenges, each game you find different motivating factors and apply them."