Mark Dantonio’s comment was greeted with dead air, followed by compulsory laughter to fill the awkward, empty silence. The only thing absent from this brief September exchange leading up to one of the most important games of his career was the one thing Michigan State is still seeking.
“We won the Rose Bowl last year,” the coach said when asked how a victory against Oregon could propel the perception of the program. “We beat Georgia a couple of years ago.”
He is stating the obvious, recent football history you should already know. But as Michigan State prepares for its biggest test of the season—a road game which it will enter as nearly a two-touchdown underdog against the nation's best offense, according to Odds Shark—it is still fighting the perception that it needs a victory to be relevant.
That relevancy has come, gradually.
The floodgates should have opened when Sparty beat Stanford in "The Granddaddy of Them All" back in January, although the response hasn’t paralleled the results.
Had the College Football Playoff debuted one year earlier, Michigan State would have been a national champion. At least that’s what the head coach believes.
“I’ve thought about that,” Dantonio said. “I thought we would have been national champions, to be perfectly honest with you. I think we would have had a shot to do that.
“Coming out at the end of the season, we were playing great football.”
The perception of Spartan football will undoubtedly take a quantum leap forward or cartoonish, banana-peel-slide downward this coming Saturday. Whatever happens in Eugene, it will be packaged as a definitive “state of the program” and sold to the masses in bulk.
The victor will instantly jump to the top of everyone’s poll, list or ranking—which is a wasted exercise given the state of the calendar, but we just can’t help ourselves—while the loser will face a familiar upward climb.
But using Oregon in Week 2 as your barometer for Michigan State is myopic. It’s lazy. It’s also in no shape or form an accurate way to take the temperature in East Lansing.
Then again, our inability to embrace a new football power with open arms is exactly what helped this transformation under Dantonio in the first place.
“People can doubt us, say what they want, talk crap, whatever,” Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. “It’s not going to affect me and it’s not going to get to our guys at Michigan State.”
Cook’s development, in many ways, mirrors the renovation of the team for which he plays. The “nice player” label has been upgraded to terms like “leader” and “future superstar.” The sample size is limited, but it’s hard not to get swept up in what’s unfolding under center.
This assentation nearly took a tumble last week when a Jacksonville State player tackled Cook late—and low—in the first half. Maybe No. 18 was lucky, maybe his joints are made of supermetals that have yet to be discovered.
Regardless, Cook has been cleared for launch.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal, he "practiced with very little pain Tuesday" in preparation for the Oregon game.
After a tremendous 2013—one that concluded with a 332-yard passing performance against one of the nation’s top defenses in the Rose Bowl—he has quickly become a household name in the football world. Even so, this recognition is nowhere near where it should be.
Get acclimated to hearing that, because it’ll be a theme throughout.
“I feel like we’re not really getting the respect coming off the season we had, but I feel like more players respect us,” Cook said. “Not so much with the media; no offense to you guys.”
None taken. And collectively, he isn’t wrong. At the very least, his stance has company in the locker room he leads. While Cook—along with the very gifted and underrated running back Jeremy Langford—will lead Sparty on offense, defensive end Shilique Calhoun is unquestionably the leader of the defense.
Calhoun, however, is wired differently.
For starters, he’s a lot larger and still growing. He also embraces the spotlight that has come with the added attention, throwing in a blinding smile that can be seen across a crowded room and a game that is impossible to miss from the couch.
He is an entertainer and a gifted performer, but like his quarterback, he feels the love just isn’t where it should be.
“I don’t think we’re as recognized as we would like,” Calhoun said. “I feel like we’re still kind of under the radar nationally. That’s a goal that we can strive for, something else we can strive to be.”
Calhoun burst onto the scene in 2013. After a 7.5-sack, three-touchdown season, “The Freak” was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He was an anchor on the nation’s most dominant defense, which has since lost plenty of impact players to the NFL.
“A lot of our seniors wished they could have played Oregon,” Calhoun said. “They wanted a shot at them.”
That’s no excuse, though. If anything, it’s a way to garner the respect these players desperately crave. While Calhoun would love to bring back cornerback Darqueze Dennard along with linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen for one more game—this game, in particular—moving ahead without them is a part of the growing process.
“You have to duplicate success, and we’re on our way to doing that,” Calhoun said. “We want to be known.”
One of the defenders helping Michigan State stay known is safety Kurtis Drummond, a senior who epitomizes this great, underappreciated and overlooked theme.
Drummond, who picked off four passes in 2013, added another interception to his resume in Sparty’s first game last weekend. And, yes, like his teammates, Drummond also feels his team is operating on a much different level than the current perception.
“We tried making a statement, whether it worked or not, we just have to continue to work,” Drummond said. “I don’t feel like we have all the respect that we should have yet. I feel we’re an elite program and we’re going to continue to train and work like an elite program.”
Overseeing it all is the man who, just this past week, reminded us that his team went to and won a Rose Bowl. Such reminders shouldn’t be necessary, although they become so when important details can be so easily glossed over.
But Dantonio is in a unique position. Although he undoubtedly craves the same recognition as his players, the ammunition that comes from this lack of respect is something all coaches would gladly stock up on.
It’s not your typical billboard treatment—something Cook acknowledged really isn’t in Dantonio’s motivational playbook—but an edge to use as Michigan State pushes forward.
“I’m always going to try and put a chip on their shoulders,” Dantonio said. “Even if we were 13-1 last year or whatever the case, we need to step up our game. You can always get better and there’s always something you can improve on.”
The chips for this Saturday—stressing the plural—are obvious. Whether it’s Vegas, the flood of picks against the Spartans or the continued “not ready” disclaimers, Dantonio has enough motivation to fill Autzen Stadium.
The doubt will continue to pour in, just like it always has, although the confidence within the locker room will continue to grow. This us-against-the-world mentality, in many ways, has fueled the evolution of the program.
"You don’t want to be conceited, don’t want to be entitled, but we want to be a confident football team," Dantonio said. "We have to handle success and continue to dream big."
A win could mean everything—the start of the dream season and, yes, the national respect Michigan State yearns for.
However, this is not a make-or-break game, no matter how hard this narrative will try to be driven home. This is the next step in a climb to relevancy, and failure this week won’t suddenly result in a dramatic fall. At least it shouldn’t, not given what this team has accomplished and where it’s poised to go.
The formula to beat Oregon isn’t as simple as following Stanford’s blueprint, although no team is as equipped to follow these detailed instructions as the program that dismantled the Cardinal just nine months ago, in a game we’ve all but forgotten.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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