Monday, April 21, 2014
Spartans hoping what's past is prologue
By Brian Bennett
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Ask Mark Dantonio for his favorite moment from Michigan State's magical 2013 season, and he’ll tell you about the stories he’s heard.
Since the Spartans beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, Dantonio has received countless letters and emails from fans. He has been stopped in stores and restaurants. Every fan, it seems, wants to tell him about the way they enjoyed their favorite team’s first trip to Pasadena, Calif., since 1988.
He’s listened to tales of people who squeezed into the middle seat in the back of a sedan for the three-day drive from Michigan to California; people who slept all night on an airport bench; people who went to the Rose Bowl with their fathers or grandfathers, or who remembered going with their fathers 26 years ago and were able to take their own children this time.
"It had a deep meaning to our fans," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "That's what I get out of it: the feeling that we made a lot of people happy. It wasn't just a game. You made a life experience for people."
Remnants of that experience are impossible to ignore around Michigan State this spring. The Spartans’ three big trophies from last season -- from winning the Legends Division, the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl -- stand together in a prominent glass display case in the Skandalaris Football Center. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s cell-phone case displays the Rose Bowl logo, while offensive coordinator Dave Warner keeps the placard of his name from a Rose Bowl news conference in his office.
The coaches and players are rightfully proud of one of the best seasons in school history, but they are also wary of lingering too much on their 2013 accomplishments and failing to build on them for 2014.
Connor Cook and MSU enjoyed every second of their 2013 Rose Bowl season, but they say it's now time to focus on the 2014 season.
"Even when we were on spring break, a lot of people approached us on the beach and said, 'Oh, you guys won the Rose Bowl,'" quarterback Connor Cook said. "We don't even want to hear about it anymore. We want to put that aside and start a new legacy this year. If it were up to us, we’d want people to stop talking about it and focus on the now."
Dantonio spoke to his team about avoiding complacency almost immediately after returning home from Pasadena. Michigan State was one of the last Big Ten teams to begin spring practice, waiting until March 25. Dantonio said that was by design, as the team spent more time than most on grueling winter conditioning. There’s nothing like weeks of 5:30 a.m. workouts to keep you from resting on your laurels.
"I think we've proven to ourselves that we can play on a large stage," Dantonio said, "but we have to retain the thinking of what got us there. We have to sort of strip ourselves down and remember how many hard lessons we had to learn. We can’t fall backward into thinking that it just happens."
The Spartans know how quickly fortunes can change. After back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010 and 2011, they dipped to 7-6 in 2012, needing to win their final regular-season game on the road just to make a bowl game.
"That’s a great scale to show us what could happen if we’re complacent," junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Sometimes, you feel like you’ve earned it, but you didn't earn anything. You have to come out every day and play like you want to earn it."
To be sure, this isn’t the same team that went 13-1 and beat every Big Ten opponent by double digits a season ago. Several star defensive players are gone, including Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. They were mainstays on a defense that finished in the top six nationally in yards allowed each of the past three seasons and was No. 2 in the FBS in 2013.
But virtually every skill player is back on an offense that made steady improvement last season. That includes Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship game MVP Cook and 1,400-yard running back Jeremy Langford. The defense still has Calhoun, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive lineman of the year, plus several players who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine.
"The good thing about our defense is we have depth," said Taiwan Jones, who is expected to replace Bullough at middle linebacker. "When Will Gholston left, everybody was like, 'Who's going to step in?' Shilique stepped in, and you saw what he did last year. When [safety] Trenton Robinson left, Kurtis Drummond stepped in, and so on.
"We’ll probably miss those guys, but we won’t miss them that much because the guys coming in can make the same amount of plays they did."
Maybe the most important returnee was Narduzzi, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. He’s more than ready to be a head coach but didn’t find the right opportunity this winter after turning down UConn.
Narduzzi has been Dantonio’s defensive coordinator now for a decade, dating back to their days at Cincinnati in 2004. That uncommon stability at the top has been the cornerstone of Michigan State’s success and should prevent any major backsliding.
"One of the great things about Mark is he’s just so steady," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "There’s not going to be a lot of changes. I think the program kind of reflects that."
Dantonio readily concedes that "expectations have been raised" now for the Spartans after last season’s breakthrough. They should start the season somewhere in the top 10 and have a highly anticipated Week 2 showdown at Oregon.
"That's an experience game," Dantonio said. "When you play on the road in that kind of environment, with that kind of exposure, those are things you can build on, good or bad."
By then, the 2014 Spartans will surely be building their own legacy. And maybe creating some new unforgettable stories.