Spartans Ready To Turn The Page; Focus On Outback Bowl
Dec. 10, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
By now, everybody should be breathing again. Heart rates and blood-pressure levels are finally back to normal. Urges to fire off angry emails have subsided.
The mourning period for Michigan State's 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game is, or needs to be, over. Believe it or not, there is football after breathtaking, heart-stopping, infuriating defeats even if it isn't in the Rose Bowl.
After a prolonged healing period - normally restricted to 24 hours even after the most gut-wrenching losses but extended to 72 thanks to a break in the schedule - the 12th-ranked Spartans have already moved on to facing No. 18 Georgia in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2, head coach Mark Dantonio said Friday.
There's no question it's been a difficult week for the Spartan Nation and not only because the Badgers will represent the Big Ten in Pasadena for the second year in a row at MSU's expense.
But also because had Trenton Robinson and Isaiah Lewis reacted to a fourth-down desperation pass a split-second sooner, Keshawn Martin wore a size 10 ½ shoe instead of an 11 or Lewis not been nudged a smidge off course during his fateful attempt to block a late punt, the Spartans might be in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
And also because the BCS system that justifies a National Championship matchup between LSU and Alabama on hard data, formulas and numeric rankings allows selection of the other four BCS games be made according to tea-leaf readings, popularity contests and back-room dealings.
"I would just reiterate that football's a game of inches," Dantonio said. "There's no question about that. We've seen that over and over throughout time, and last Saturday's game was no different after looking at it again. Sometimes when they're close like that they hurt even more.
"With that said, we need to rise up again. It's tough to get over something like that but young people are resilient, often more-so than their coaches and fans."
Dantonio and MSU Athletics Director Mark Hollis are confident the entire Spartan Nation will shake off the doldrums lingering from Indianapolis, but also can't help being worried that the support that would have certainly been there in Southern California will fizzle in South Florida.
However, except for location and pageantry, the game itself won't be much different.
In some ways, this is the first game of next season. How MSU fares, with its young defense returning almost intact, against Georgia will be taken into consideration when preseason rankings are determined.
This will be a chance to see Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Joel Foreman and Trenton Robinson, and the rest of seniors play one more time, while getting a glimpse at next season's team. Dantonio said he plans to play back-up quarterback and heir apparent Andrew Maxwell for at least one series just as he did Cousins in place of Brian Hoyer briefly against the Bulldogs three years ago.
"This game will springboard us into 2012," Dantonio said. "It's a chance to see what's next for this team and what's beyond that. We plan to play Andrew some as long as it doesn't interfere with what Kirk's trying to do.
"We're going to provide a glimpse of the future not only for our players, but for our fans in terms of where this program is going. I'm very confident they'll show up."
It's not like Michigan State went into the title game ignorant to the consequences of losing. The Spartans knew they would be a prohibitive long-shot for a BCS game, but would probably be playing in their third New Year's game in six seasons.
It never was an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether they were on the Pacific Coast or the Gulf Coast, they wouldn't be playing for a National Championship.
Nevertheless, the Spartans did lose to Georgia in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, and also in the '89 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, so Hollis is looking to cure been-there-done-that syndrome.
And all because of three missing letters? All because the game will be played in a modern NFL Stadium in the sunshine instead of an NFL dome in New Orleans?
There was a clamor for a Big Ten title game so the championship would be decided on the field, but what ensued hardly has a tournament feel to it. By any objective appraisal, MSU should be looked at as the conference runner-up instead of Miss Congeniality while Michigan and Penn State - who didn't play each other by the way - should be matched up in a fantasy game for third place.
The Sugar Bowl is some consolation.
If the Big Ten were seeded by a true committee, MSU would be a strong No. 2 seed. And whatever happened to head-to-head competition being the ultimate arbiter?
Hollis knows he can depend on the core of die-hard fans to take a substantial bite out of the 11,500 tickets provided each school by the bowl. It's the other 5,000, or so, he's depending on to sell out the allotment and 10,000-15,000 more like those who bought tickets on their own for the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl and '09 and '11 Capital One Bowl, all in Orlando.
"I understand why people are depressed about this one, but at the same time, this is when you need them the most," Hollis said. "You don't worry about things like this when you go to the Rose Bowl. You need them when you're in a situation like this."
Some past Spartans teams would have traded training table for macaroni and cheese to in such a situation.
Just like MSU, Georgia is 10-3. The Bulldogs also were division winners in the Southeastern Conference, lost in the conference championship (to LSU) and were left out of the BCS picture as well. The difference is, the SEC programs (as well as those in the Big 12 and other leagues with long-standing title games) are experienced at having their championship-game loser placed in the situation of making the most out of a temporarily unhappy situation.
"One of the biggest negatives from having a conference championship game is that you have an outstanding year, then all of the air and momentum is taken out for one of the teams that was in it," Hollis said. "For us, it's a whole new experience. Georgia's level of excitement (for the Outback Bowl) is much higher that what Michigan State's is because they're accustomed to this."
Looking at it objectively, the matchup on the field isn't all that much different from a college football standpoint. Georgia arguably has more status among traditional powers than No. 6 Oregon - the team Wisconsin will face in the Rose Bowl - and comes from a conference that's equally as storied as the Pac-12, if not more-so.
"It's an opportunity to win a bowl, which we haven't done (since 2001)," he said. "How do you energize the Spartan Nation? What words do you use to make it go viral a little bit? I want to be strong about this.
"This is a game where the players can't be a no-show because Georgia is too good, and the fans can't be a no-show. This is a moment where you define yourself. It's a risk to make that kind of statement because if you end up selling 5,000, you've just defined yourself."
Dantonio indicated that beating Georgia without strong fan support would be difficult and they're needed to solidify MSU as a complete program that has shed the undeserved stigma of "they don't travel well."
"I think fans are the lifeblood of any program," he said. "If you have great fans, they're loyal and come in numbers, and they bring a lot of excitement to the players and the program. Obviously, they also bring financial backing, but we were 7-0 at Spartan Stadium each of the last two years and it's because of the fans."
Dantonio would like nothing better than to see the "electric atmosphere" created at Lucas Oil Stadium, by the fans who sold out Michigan State's allotment of 25,000 seats in a day, duplicated in Raymond James Stadium while the Spartans play another team wearing red.
"The fans in Indy were unbelievable," said Dantonio, who was the Ohio State defensive coordinator in the 2002 National Championship Game. "There's been no experience like that championship game for me other than the one time I was able to coach in a game on an even larger scale."
"We had a tremendous year, and we've changed the culture," Dantonio said. "Five years ago, we hadn't played in a New Year's game since '99. Now it's becoming the norm."
Who ever thought getting once-bowl-starved fans excited about supporting the Spartans in Tampa would be an issue?
at the official