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Spartans see their window of opportunity

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The best evidence that Michigan State is on the brink of something special this fall might not stem from the games it won last season, but from the ones it lost.

Behind first-year coach Mark Dantonio, the Spartans won seven games and reached a bowl for the first time since 2003. The exciting thing is they could have done so much more.

All six of their losses came by seven points or fewer, including two in overtime. So many near-misses suggests a lack of poise, but Michigan State players and coaches point to another trait, one that has been missing in East Lansing for some time.

"Every game we gave 'em a battle," safety Otis Wiley said. "We're a team of hard workers. We might not have all the stars in the Big Ten, but all the people on the field will play hard."

That hasn't always been true for the Spartans. They've been arguably the biggest tease in college football, a team famous for starting fast and infamous for what happens next.

From 2000-2006, Michigan State went 21-9 in games before Oct. 1 and 17-36 afterward. The on-cue collapses usually started with a heartbreaking loss and then quickly spiraled out of control, casting doubt about Michigan State's leadership and mental toughness. Of those 36 post-Oct. 1 losses, 19 came by 13 points or more.

Last season followed a familiar pattern, as the Spartans started 4-0 before dropping five of their next six games. But they never got blown out. They rallied in the fourth quarter to tie games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa. They held a 10-point lead against Michigan with 7:40 left.

Their persistence eventually paid off, as Michigan State used a 17-point fourth quarter to beat Purdue on the road. The next week, the Spartans scored two late touchdowns to rally past Penn State and clinch a bowl berth.

"We know, and everybody else knows, that we can play with anybody in our conference," running back Javon Ringer said. "That's the only big difference. None of us are really getting into that whole, 'We could be the surprise team of this year in the Big Ten or the Illinois of [this] year.' Actually, that would be great if we could be like Illinois. Who wouldn't want to go to the Rose Bowl?"

Michigan State is the chic pick to become the Big Ten's surprise team, and its string of close losses last season is a big reason why.

There are other factors, namely an all-senior offensive backfield of Ringer, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, and quarterback Brian Hoyer, who should improve in crunch time. The Spartans' defense has depth up front and in the secondary, and some newcomers, including defensive end Trevor Anderson, a transfer from Cincinnati, are expected to make an impact.

The forecast looks sunny -- not rosy, yet -- but at Michigan State, everyone is always on the lookout for storm clouds.

"We have to break that curse," Wiley said. "We have to start it now. We're under new leadership, under new coaches. We trust our coaches that they know what it takes."

Dantonio doesn't recoil from talk of Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances, saying it would be a disservice to his team not to discuss those goals. But he also acknowledges the program's history: Michigan State hasn't reached consecutive bowls since 1996-'97 and hasn't produced consecutive winning seasons since 1989-'90.

The opportunity to change the trend is here, and the Spartans must seize it.

"We won seven football games, but could have won nine, 10, whatever it is," Dantonio said. "So again, the difference between winning and losing is like that. If you blink, you may miss it."