Nov. 21, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's preseason talk of striking BCS gold has been devalued by each subsequent defeat, but Denicos Allen isn't taking any of it back.
Nor is the outspoken junior linebacker suddenly sheepish because instead of playing for the Rose Bowl, the 5-6 Spartans are down to their final shot at postseason eligibility and a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Allen was by no means alone while articulating MSU's shoot-for-the-stars approach coming out of spring drills and during preseason camp.
After all, the Spartans had just put together back-to-back 11-win seasons in which a Rose Bowl bid in 2010 was nixed by the Big Ten tiebreaker rule and a shift to divisional play a year later meant that for the first time, having the overall best conference record guaranteed MSU only a trip to Indianapolis, not Pasadena.
Even so, the Spartans fell just short of winning the rematch against Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game and the bulk of that team was returning.
Allen didn't feel compelled to apologize to MSU's critics for feeling so confident during the off-season.
"I don't know, it may have (jinxed us)," Allen joked. "But I don't regret saying what I said. The talent we have on this team is definitely really good. We just weren't as experienced as we were in past years in the program, and that really hurt us."
Allen's projections, like those of everyone else handicapping the Big Ten race, were based on the offensive line remaining relatively intact for the season instead of losing established stalwarts Fou Fonoti at right tackle and center Travis Jackson early on and playing musical chairs the rest of the way.
The Spartans also underestimated the loss of players like wideout Keshawn Martin, defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and defensive back Trenton Robinson, who are now making pro-level contributions to their respective NFL teams.
Head coach Mark Dantonio set the tone by openly embracing the high expectations. There was more talk, on the offensive side of the ball, of first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell continuing to expand on what three-year starter Kirk Cousins had left behind even though the receiving corps was starting over with talented, but raw and untested, replacements for Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol.
Tailback and major award candidate Le'Veon Bell would shoulder much of the offensive load until the passing attack came of age and a stout returning defense would protect the fort until the offense caught up. Allen & Co.'s projections were nothing but bolstered by the 17-13 victory over nationally acclaimed Boise State in the opener.
And for the most part, that's pretty much how the season has unfolded.
What no one saw coming, however, was the way a costly roughing-the-kicker penalty in the waning moments of the title game against Wisconsin continuing as theme of this season. Two dropped balls changed the complexion of games that ended in defeat against Notre Dame and Ohio State, who are currently a combined 22-0.
Meantime, MSU's margin of error in what Dantonio calls "a game of inches" continued to shrink.
In some cases, Allen's predictions were thrown off by millimeters.
"Throughout the years, it's been the little things that have been beating us," Allen said. "We're 13 points away from being 10-1 and that's all from not doing the little things right. The little details have beaten us, and the proof is in our record.
"It's been a long season; it's been an interesting season. Even though our record doesn't show it, we're still a good football team. Everyone on this team is sick about our record. We've been doing a great job at competing, but not so good at finishing games off. Our effort's been great. That's one thing we don't do in this program, we never give up."
The Spartans will get another opportunity to validate that claim Saturday at Minnesota. If they win, they'll have another chance to state their case against what should be a worthy intersectional opponent.
Actually, Dantonio continued to express some of that preseason spirit when he played the role of master salesman, if not psychologist, while assuming the sale going into the game against the bowl-bound Golden Gophers.
"You have to look at this as the glass is half full, it's not half empty," Dantonio said. "When we win Saturday, and I'll say `when,' to be a 6-6 football team, we're not climbing out of the cellar at 2-10. I think everybody needs to understand that. We did lose a lot of close games."
Senior guard Chris McDonald appreciated Dantonio's bold, if not risky, vote of confidence.
"We know we're backed into the corner and need this win," McDonald said. "We need to have confidence for this win because Minnesota's going to come out hard and so are we. We want this.
"You look at this year and we could have given up and been killed by every team. But it's been close, so we just keep punching and this is going to help them next year. We keep saying that sooner or later it's going to hit and when it all comes together we're going to be unstoppable. It shows that every team that we played had to play their best game against us."
The time for reflection and re-evaluation has come early to Michigan State, where the process of becoming a perennial late-season contender continues. Programs deemed to have "arrived" stop talking, at some point, about program games, which is what Dantonio considers the matchup against Minnesota because a win will extend MSU's unprecedented bowl streak.
In other words, there are still major developmental steps forward to be taken for a team led by its junior class, which includes Allen. Not sending the seniors out with a bowl trip and getting a jump on the 2013 campaign would be a step back.
"Without question for me, it's keeping the bowl streak alive and going to six straight bowls," Dantonio said. "In a tough year where you've lost some tough games very close, to be able to continue to respond, get over the hump a little bit and have an opportunity to play in a bowl game against a great opponent, and I'm sure we'd have a great one - those are the things that are important."
Dantonio has already hinted at changes on the horizon, such as allowing Maxwell and the other quarterbacks to be hit in the spring, which wasn't the case last March and April, and enhancing the offense with state-of-the-art updates he'll disclose at another time.
He also anticipated that a large dose of humility will replace what some are now looking back upon as hubris.
"I don't think you'll hear us talking about a national championship; I think you'll hear us talking about reality," Dantonio said. "Sometimes our feet have to come back to the ground. Maybe that was the case after the 2011 season. Maybe we needed to float back down to earth a little bit, understand we're human beings.
"As soon as we take that approach in everything we do, we'll be better off. As soon as we understand nothing is given to us in life, it's not entitled to us, you have to earn it, we'll be better off. I think that's a life-lesson for all of us."
While the Spartans know they will be well-served to let their actions do most of their talking from this point forward, Allen has no intention of lowering his aim.
"Our expectations in this program are always high," he said. "I'm not going to openly say national championship or Rose Bowl again, but I expect to be in a BCS bowl somewhere next year. That's always going to be how I am."