Dec. 29, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and a pair of impressive season-opening victories, the future appeared to be "now" for Michigan State.
The Spartans, ranked 10th in the nation heading into the third game, appeared poised to defend their Big Ten Legends Division Championship and make a run at the Rose Bowl.
But, maybe the future was really going to be next season all along.
"We're a junior-dominated team, or younger, probably," head coach Mark Dantonio said Friday at the final Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl news conference.
In that respect, Saturday's game against TCU in Sun Devil Stadium will give MSU's departing upperclassmen the opportunity to help build momentum toward a successful 2013 campaign and position the underclassmen to capitalize on it.
Bowl practice has allowed the coaching staff to evaluate many of the younger players, who've mostly been running the next opponent's plays with the scout team, in the Spartan system for the first time since preseason camp.
It's also given key reserves an avenue to reassert themselves as viable options for the playing group.
"The bowl practice has helped us," Dantonio said while giving an overview of players who have stood out in practice since the regular season finale at Minnesota. "I think our quarterback situation (with fourth-year junior Andrew Maxwell) was inexperienced initially, but we have more experience now.
"Our offensive line, because of the injuries that occurred early in the season, is much younger now. (third-year sophomore right tackle) Skyler Burkland is playing more effectively."
Freshman defensive back Demetrious Cox won't play against TCU because he's redshirting, but he probably could very effectively.
"Cox traveled with (the varsity) and worked with us the entire year," Dantonio said. "Cox is functional. He could play tomorrow, (but) we won't take the redshirt off of him."
True freshman linebacker Riley Bullough, the younger brother of starting middle linebacker Max, is establishing himself and fellow freshman offensive lineman Jack Conklin (6-6, 300) "is a guy you see with athletic ability, a big guy," Dantonio said. "Those guys have stepped forward."
Lawrence Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 295 red-shirt freshman, could play fullback and defensive tackle against the Horned Frogs.
"He's going to be an outstanding football player for us," Dantonio said. "He can play either side."
Of course, junior running back Le'Veon Bell, with 1,648 yards, has one more chance to build upon the second-best single-season rushing performance in school history. Almost virtually assured of being one of college football's marquee players if he returns for his senior season, it will be interesting to see if Bell has picked up some quickness by shedding 10 pounds.
Things are also looking up in the receiving department.
"I think our wide receivers have improved greatly since the beginning of the year," Dantonio said. "Aaron Burbridge is a tremendous freshman who's able to take it down a notch and rebuild every single week. That's tough for a freshman when you change things up (every week) and (only) have two, three days to prepare. Now we have more time to prepare; he should know exactly what's going on.
"I think (transfer wideout) DeAnthony Arnett has played much better, caught the ball more effectively, has a great burst and speed. Those are some of the guys that have caught my eye."
TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who lost to Dantonio's Cincinnati team in 2004, is a fan of MSU's style.
"I like teams that play hard." Patterson said. "Both Michigan State and TCU play hard if they both show up and do the things they need to do. Michigan State has a very good defense, they sit on top of you, they want to suffocate you, they want you to say, no mas."
Patterson also refuted the notion that just because his long-time friend projects an understated persona, MSU's balanced, pro-style offense must be conservative and predictable.
"Coach Dantonio is great because he has a very quiet demeanor in public, then he's faking punts, faking field goals, could go with double-reverse passes," Patterson said. "You got to give the guy credit - you have to get ready for a ballgame.
"He's not fooling me. I've been watching him and have admired him for a long time. I've been watching their program, how they do things, what goes on, how they fit things around. Ever since he's been there, he's been going to bowl games at Michigan State.
"I always learn from people that go somewhere. Maybe the perception out there is (that) they don't have as much as what everybody else has, (but) I look at how did they get it done when they started at the beginning? He has one of those programs."
Most teams that qualify for the postseason add a few new wrinkles for the bowl and Michigan State is no different. However, whether the Spartans unveil many, or any, will be determined by what develops against TCU.
"Can't let the cat out of the bag," Dantonio said sheepishly. "There are always things you mess around with, but whether things come to fruition or not (are) game-time decisions."
What's more important for Dantonio is that this bowl represents another step forward for a program whose best days lie ahead.
"When you look at our football team, there's a little bit of a mystery there in some aspects," he said. "In turnover margin, we're sitting right at zero. We've turned the ball over a little bit but not overly more than we've gotten it. We have the leading rusher in the Big Ten Conference, yet we're not scoring as many points.
"But (with) what we do and who we are, there has to be a foundation as you move throughout the season. There's a foundation you try to build on and try to improve on. (The Spartans') reputation as football players and a team is on the line every time you step on the field. You better be up for the challenge. If you're not, you're going backwards."