Dec. 8, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - A celebration 26 years in the making finally bubbled over at a stadium that didn't exist, with players yet to be born, in a championship format decades away from being adopted the last time Michigan State won the right to play in the Rose Bowl.
When the 10th-ranked Spartans were finally coaxed to leave the artificial surface covering the Lucas Oil Stadium floor, where they danced with the green-clad faithful in the stands, they took the party into their balmy locker room. There, some with roses clenched between their teeth and others still wearing padded gear, they danced some more with the Big Ten championship trophy, and posed for photos and videos being preserved on cell phones.
Michigan State's 34-24 improbable come-from-behind victory against No. 2 Ohio State in Saturday night's Big Ten title game not only produced its first undisputed conference crown since 1987, and eighth overall, it validated MSU's claim to a seat at college football's main table with a nation watching.
"I'm just happy we led Michigan State to a better place than when I got here," said senior middle linebacker Max Bullough. "When we talked about winning the Big Ten and we talked about the Rose Bowl, they had always been a dream - a vision in front of us.
"Now, it's a tangible goal that we've touched, that we accomplished and that future teams can look back at and say, `Look, they did it and I was alive when they did it.'
"Because, none of us were alive the last time this happened."
The win was improbable because it came after the Spartans lost a 17-0 second-quarter lead by giving up 24 unanswered points, only to regain it by scoring the game's last 17 points in the final 17-and-a-half minutes.
It was improbable because the offensive comeback was led by redshirt sophomore Connor Cook, who four months before being named the Most Valuable Player of the championship game, wasn't even the most valuable of four quarterbacks competing for the starting job on any given day in preseason camp.
It was improbable because Jeremy Langford, the re-converted tailback who made salvage stops in the defensive secondary and at wide receiver earlier in his career, once again sealed the deal, this time with a 26-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. It was the fifth time, in as many games, that Langford delivered the coup de grace, the others coming from 44, 37, 37 and 40 yards out.
It was improbable because Michigan State's defensive comeback was completed by senior outside linebacker Denicos Allen, an Ohio native who didn't warrant a scholarship offer from the iconic in-state powerhouse adored by his family and friends.
"They said I wasn't good enough, that I can't play for them, that I've got to go to Michigan State," Allen said of being snubbed by Ohio State. "But we're Big Ten champs, baby. We're going to Pasadena. I'm glad they didn't offer. I'm glad I committed to Michigan State."
Cook's 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, which came at the end of a 90-yard drive, restored a three-point Spartan lead with 11:41 remaining in the game. However, with the way OSU dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller had gashed the MSU defense for long gains on scrambles and keepers up to that point, the margin was far from safe.
Then, the momentum appeared to be shifting back to the Buckeyes after they deflected a Mike Sadler punt and took over just 47 yards from the go-ahead touchdown with 7:36 remaining, and most of the crowd of 66,002 wearing red and cheering them on.
Three running plays - two by Miller for 1 yard and 4 yards, and one by tailback Carlos Hyde for 3 -- set up fourth-and-2 at the 39.
Not close enough to try a field goal, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer went all-in by putting the ball in the hands of his best player. The Buckeyes tried to cross MSU up by sweeping Miller to the short side of the field, but Allen sniffed it out and rode him to a ground a yard short of the marker.
"I was blitzing off the edge and I know that Braxton Miller, being the big playmaker that he is, could easily cut it upfield for 1 yard," Allen said. "I knew it was all on me at that moment. So I had to use my athletic ability and kind of play with their minds. I faked rushing inside on the running back, made the quarterback bounce outside and I bounced with him, and that was that."
Allen, who led the nation's No. 1 defense in tackles to earn second All-Big Ten honors, was having a quiet game until defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi challenged him on the sideline to play like he had throughout the season.
"It fits well with my history, my recruiting with them," Allen said. "It's a great feeling to know that you're a part of this team, and part of something special that happened tonight. For me to finish my senior year of this Big Ten season on that play is a perfect ending."
Or, an even better beginning.
At Dantonio's introductory press conference seven-plus years ago, MSU athletic director Mark Hollis metaphorically set the standard for the program's success in terms of paint from roses on the bottom of the Spartans' cleats.
They'll be walking across that sprayed on Rose Bowl logo with school-record 12 wins, double-digit victories against all nine Big Ten opponents and at least one vote for the opportunity to play one week later in the BCS title game, also hosted this season by the Rose Bowl.
"We'll be motivated (for the next game)," Dantonio said. "It will be a great trip for us. More importantly, it's a rite of passage really for our football team. It's someplace we haven't been.
"We weren't ranked in the Top 25 until sometime the end of October. So this football team has earned its way. We have not backed into any games. We didn't back into this championship game, we're not backing into the Rose Bowl, we're going in the right way."
And after what was, at the beginning and the end, a dominating performance against an Ohio State team believed to be a win away from playing for the national championship, Dantonio put in a bid for more.
"We beat the No. 2 team," he said. "I don't think there's an undefeated team out there but one. Is that correct? Florida State still undefeated? So there's one. We're 12-1. Why not us? I'll vote us No. 2. We'll start with that."
It may seem improbable, but then, these Spartans don't seem to know the meaning of the word.
"We never felt like this game was slipping away from us," said offensive tackle Fou Fonoti. "You could see it in the demeanor of the team on the sideline. We refused to give up, and that's been our motto. We knew that they're a great team and we just went out there and kept fighting. We believed in ourselves and in the way we play, and here we are."
And, there they go.
"I definitely came here for a reason, to be a part of something bigger than myself, and these guys, this program, the Spartan Nation, are," said Fonoti who will get to play his final game for MSU near his home in Lakewood, Calif. "To be able to go home with them is just adding to my family. This is all my blood."