Spartans’ quest: Prove ’13 was no fluke

The Sports Xchange

August 19, 2014 at 3:44 pm.


Connor Cook (18) is one of the leaders on a good Michigan State team. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan State has spent the last few months basking in the glow of a Big Ten championship and a victory in the Rose Bowl. Or, at least, that’s what it has done publicly.

Behind closed doors, the Spartans insist the focus on 2014 began on the plane back from Pasadena.

The Spartans are on a mission to prove they belong, that last season’s success was simply the latest step in a progression toward national prominence. In fact, their coach is convinced if the College Football Playoff existed last season, Michigan State would have been the champions.

“I thought we would have been national champions to be perfectly honest with you,” Mark Dantonio said. “I think we would have had a shot to do that because I think we were playing, coming out of the end of the season — that stretch coming out of the season — we were playing great football and we were believing in ourselves. Were we there at the beginning of the season? No. But coming out we were playing our best football in November and then into the championship game and then the Rose Bowl.”

There is little doubting how well Michigan State was playing at the time, and victories over Ohio State and Stanford certainly helped prove that.

But there is still doubt about Michigan State heading into 2014. It could be as much about how long it takes to change perception in college football as it is about the fact the Spartans are replacing six starters on the No. 2 defense in the nation.

Either way, it’s the Buckeyes who are the favorite in the eyes of most observers and the Spartans intend to use it to their advantage.

“It’s more than a little bit of a chip (on our shoulder),” senior safety Kurtis Drummond said. “But it’s on us to put in our work and handle our business. Any added fuel is good, but we do a great job of being self-motivated.”

Added junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun, “We may have a little more respect but we’re still underdogs. I think someone mentioned to me Ohio State is favored to win the Big Ten championship. I consider that an underdog. We can use that to our advantage and focus on being the best no matter what.”

Dantonio hasn’t focused much on the fact his team is being picked against. After all, they enter the season as a top-10 team nationally. Instead, he has pushed his team to “handle success” and not feel at all entitled after last season.

He hopes they simply continue a trend that has seen the Spartans win 11 or more games in three of the last four seasons.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve done some special things,” he said. “We’re a little bit more the hunted. It’s a good place to be but also a precarious place, as well. We’ve had a knack for winning football games, but we’ve also taken a step back a couple of times. We have to continue to find those inches and gain even more ground, because respectability can fly right out the window on us, and I understand that.”

Spartans at a glance

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, eighth year at Michigan State, 64-29 at Michigan State, 82-46 overall

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 rating as applicable):

–DE Shilique Calhoun (No. 3 defensive end, 7th overall) — The Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year in 2013, Calhoun enters his junior season as one of the top defensive linemen in the country. He recorded 7.5 sacks last season, his first as a starter, and also scored three touchdowns while being named a second-team All-American.

–S Kurtis Drummond (No. 1 free safety, 29th overall) — The fifth-year senior has often been overshadowed in a secondary that has produced plenty of standout players. But Drummond has started 39 games in his career and is the epitome of consistent for the Spartans. He had 91 tackles last season along with four interceptions and six pass breakups while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors.

–QB Connor Cook — He entered his sophomore season as the backup in 2013, but by the end of the year he had won MVP honors in both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl while earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Cook went 12-1 as a starter for the Spartans and completed 223 of 380 passes for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Taiwan Jones — Entering his senior season, the Spartans are asking Jones to not only make the move from outside linebacker to the middle, but also fill the shoes of Max Bullough. The key for Jones won’t be handling the position physically. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he will be just fine. His biggest challenge will be running the defense the way Bullough did the last three seasons. The Michigan State coaches will do everything they can to make the transition a smooth one, but Jones’ ability to make the move won’t be an easy one. He can always move back outside and others will be pushing him in the middle, but the Spartans have made it clear they want Jones to win that battle.