The Michigan State Spartans are finally heading back to the Rose Bowl after a convincing 34-24 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes. For most students, alumni and fans nationwide, the result of the Big Ten title game wasn’t something they could have ever foreseen in their wildest dreams.
Though for my columns here, I’m always expected to remain neutral, balanced and call the action as I see it regarding the green and white, I’m still among those currently proudest of my university’s football program, so forgive these humble boasts. As a student at Michigan State from 2005-2008, I was witness to some of the worst college football imaginable. John L. Smith was the coach, and despite twinges of optimism a college freshman has about their football team, I was soon treated to cynicism, a Michigan State football rite of passage immediately after arriving on campus.
There was no optimism to be had with regards Spartan football in 2005 and 2006. After the first few games of those seasons, there was typically nothing left but heartbreak, dissapointment and frustration. I learned that quick. By October, my favorite refrain at Michigan State was “at least it’s almost basketball season,” as if that made spending hundreds of dollars to sit in Spartan Stadium for four hours in the heat, cold, rain or snow for a lousy football product acceptable or alright.
Despair was plentiful. Where to begin? Where to end? The crushing overtime loss against the Michigan Wolverines in 2005 was followed closely by Smith losing his mind during defeat to Ohio State while chatting with Jack Arute. After that, the wheels completely fell off for a 5-6 finish. 2006 was a largely forgettable 4-8 as well, save for the worst sporting event I’ve ever seen live, a rain-soaked collapse against Notre Dame. The roster had holes. There was no defense, no direction and thus, no hope.
With nowhere to turn, it didn’t seem to matter much to me when Smith was fired and Mark Dantonio was hired. I knew Dantonio had coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State and also led Ohio State’s immensely successful defense. I knew he had carved out a solid resume at Cincinnati gathering some upsets along the way. None of it mattered, though, because this was Michigan State. Our football team was designed to fail from its inception, right? Everything had conditioned me to beleive that.
Dantonio has slowly but surely worked to change that belief. 2007 featured several, close heartbreaking losses, but at season’s end, it became clear that the seeds were changing and players began to emerge. 2008, 2009 and 2012 were up and down affairs at times cracking confidence, while 2010 and 2011 were tantalizing glimpses of what could be. While I will always remain a cynic at heart, 2013′s amazing ride has provided me plenty of reasons to finally beleive otherwise.
Michigan State beat every one of their Big Ten rivals by double digits behind the toughest defense in the nation. After plenty of early questions, their offense, led by Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford, has quietly rounded into form and become a force. Dantonio’s system is allowing players to flourish after getting established, and with the consistency which has developed, it’s clear the Spartans aren’t going anywhere. They recruit and coach up tough “Spartan Dawgs” willing to work instead of constantly chasing highly-publicized, coddled high school athletes with a higher bust potential. Outsiders mocked Dantonio for conditioning his team to eat, sleep and breath a Rose Bowl goal, but the Spartans needed direction off of Smith, and a singular rose bloom logo around the facilities has constantly provided that.
This Rose Bowl birth, and the cathartic moment where Langford carried the ball into the end zone and ensured it was possible helped make the nonsense of the past 20 years almost feel acceptable. It has washed away many taunts of Michigan fans who’ve belittled the program forever. It made losing to Rutgers, Louisiana Tech and Central Michigan (three bleepin’ times) seem irrelevant. It even made sitting in a driving rainstorm watching an epic collapse against Notre Dame finally feel somewhat ok.
Yes, Michigan State is finally heading back to the Rose Bowl. Let that statement sink in for a minute. A team which hasn’t even been able to get out of their own way historically is finally going back to the “grandaddy of them all.” More than that, with a solid foundation built, they look poised to continue to impact the national college football landscape into the future and could be in store for more visits to Pasadena.
2013 might just have ushered in a new use for the tired term “Same old Spartans.” It could actually become a term of endearment, as in “Same old Spartans, playing with toughness and discipline, dominating lesser-minded opponents, going to the Rose Bowl.”
I, for one, never thought I’d actually see the day that could be considered the case. Finally, for once, everything is coming up roses for Michigan State football, everyone’s favorite old punching bag.
It’s about time we finally started punching back.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax