Dec. 20, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's Big Ten Championship football season is replete with stories of realization, reclamation and redemption.
The first chapter is personified by the newcomers and the untested, such as quarterback Connor Cook, offensive tackle Jack Conklin and true freshman placekicker Michael Geiger, who discovered their key roles as the season unfolded.
The second is represented by the likes of wide receiver Bennie Fowler, running back Jeremy Langford and wideout Tony Lippett. Identified initially for their potential, only to be sidetracked at various points throughout their careers by everything from injuries to limited opportunities at their respective positions, each emerged to take a rightful place on MSU's journey to the Rose Bowl.
Then there are those such as offensive guard Blake Treadwell, nose tackle Micajah Reynolds and outside linebacker Denicos Allen. They are the long-timers who experienced some of the program's most agonizing growing pains and some of its most gratifying moments with the expectation that something even better was always right around the next corner.
Collectively, they form the narrative of how the Spartans defeated No. 2-ranked Ohio State for the outright Big Ten championship and their school-record 12th win, booked a return trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years and will appear in a BCS game for the first time.
"There is no question we've climbed a ladder and we've scratched to get there," seventh-year head coach Mark Dantonio said at MSU's Rose Bowl Media Day earlier this week at Spartan Stadium. "That's what makes this a little bit of a unique story, I think."
A nationally touted kicking prospect, Geiger arrived from Toledo Ottawa Hills High as a classic case of young player who didn't know what he didn't know. The physical toll and mental grind of preseason camp quashed the aspirations he had - cautiously shared by Dantonio - of kicking field goals for the Spartans starting with the season opener.
"There was definitely a struggle for me early on competing in camp," Geiger said. "There was no experience I had had previously like that camp, where 20-some days in a row I was competing for a spot. I had to bring my A-game every single day and that made me realize every day is a showing for why you deserve that spot.
"I knew that (senior Kevin) Muma was very deserving because he was having a great camp. Coming down the stretch, we determined he was going to have the spot and that I needed to stay consistent and really work hard so that it would make for an easier decision by the coaches if they ever considered going to me."
Geiger's time didn't come until the third quarter of the fourth game, at Notre Dame. He converted on his first career attempt, from 25 yards, and added a 42-yarder in the fourth quarter of the 17-13 loss.
Heading into the Rose Bowl against Stanford, Geiger leads the Big Ten with 93.3-percent accuracy (14 of 15). His most recent effort came from 44 yards with 2:29 remaining in the third quarter against the Buckeyes and provided the first three of 17 unanswered points that spurred MSU to a 34-24 come-from-behind victory.
"Having to work for it, harder than maybe I thought I was going to have to, made me re-think what I was doing and made me a better kicker," Geiger said. "I came in expecting to try to contribute in any way I could, so I wouldn't say I was disappointed. And, I didn't want to stay down because I knew there would be plenty of opportunity here.
"So I stayed positive throughout and that helped me to be confident when I got my chance. Being thrown into the mix halfway through the (Notre Dame) game was a little difficult, but I managed to hit two kicks and built from there. Had I started from Day 1 I may not have had the same success I've had. By getting my trial-by-fire I knew that I had to make the most of every opportunity and that kind of focused me."
Lippett, a well-traveled junior who earned BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman honorable mention as a defensive back, had four catches (all against Youngstown State) in Michigan State's first five games. His 35 receptions in the last nine games have him tied with Macgarrett Kings Jr. for the team lead (39 each) and the vast majority of his catches have resulted in a first down or a touchdown.
"I never felt like it wasn't going to happen," said Lippett, whose first start of season came in the Big Ten opener at Iowa. "I just knew if I continued to work hard and stay consistent, and just keep adapting and stay humble, it would all fall into place.
"The lowest point was standing on the sideline and watching everybody else being called in and I just wasn't being called in. But I still had to be up for my teammates."
"I always tried to be a good teammate no matter what," Lippett said. "I talked to A.B. a lot about stuff like that because we both played the X (split end) and tried to help him out a little bit, and certain stuff he helped me out with, and we tried to feed off each other.
"I guess it was Iowa week when I just tried to show the coaches I could make plays and go out with an aggressive approach. Sometimes I put a lot of pressure on myself and I tried to stop doing that. I tried to go out there and play loose and have fun while also being disciplined in my techniques and approach to the game."
Like all the seniors, Allen came into the season with something to prove. The Spartans' 7-6 record in 2012 was not only a personal setback, it was regarded by many as a return to erratic way MSU often performed before posting back-to-back 11-win seasons.
After a breakout year with 83 tackles and team Most Improved Player accolades as a sophomore, Allen had 79 stops in '12. He currently leads the nation's top-ranked defense with 91 tackles, the last of which came against Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller on a fourth-down play that helped secure the Big Ten championship.
"Knowing that you made a play that's going down in Big Ten history is amazing," Allen said. "I don't even know what to say about it; the film speaks for itself. It's something I'll never forget and it is the biggest play I ever made in my life."
And yet, redemptive experiences are only possible if there's a need to be redeemed in the first place.
"I didn't play horrible last year," Allen said. "I just didn't play the type of ball I was capable of playing, and coming out of that season wasn't fun.
"I just went back and watched film of each game and each practice to see if I was just being lazy or what? I just did little things like that and extra stuff like drills at the end of each practice. I didn't believe it before, but it actually pays off."
Although Allen was determined to keep the 2012 regular season in the past, his transition started with a solid performance in the 17-16 win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
"I kind of thought I could have been playing like that all season and I didn't want to feel like that and the end of the next season," he said. "I knew this was my last year and I didn't want to leave this program holding any regrets. I wanted to leave it all out on the field and leave my legacy, and I also knew that if I didn't bring it all, it wasn't going to happen.
"I cranked up my play and every other player on this team cranked up their play and we just clicked on another level this year. And here I am now. We're going to the Rose Bowl."