This is the perfect ending to Michigan State’s improbable season, because Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio guaranteed a trip to the Rose Bowl in a video of him standing on the Rose Bowl field back in May.
And sure enough, he was correct, as MSU was a success.
The role of the underdog was not new to Dantonio. He knew it as soon as Michigan State avenged each loss after a disastrous 2012 season, unable to clinch bowl eligibility until the final game of the regular season. But this time, it was different for an unequivocal Michigan State team. This is a team that believed in each other and they played as hard as they possibly could on a night that the Rose Bowl turned 100. Their faith was rewarded with a 24-20 victory against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game, an improbable title over a team that returned to Pasadena for the second straight year seeking back-to-back glory.
A team is often defined by what it does in the last game, particularly when it happens at the most historic setting in college football. This is a team that has been trying forever, of course, and finally it has had tremendous success — with a storybook ending unfolding at Lucas Oil Stadium during the Big Ten championship game against an Ohio State team that had won 24 consecutive games. That night, the Spartans went on to beat the Buckeyes 34-24, earning its first trip to Pasadena since Jan. 1, 1988.
All season, Michigan State was a powerhouse in the Big Ten, but America disrespected and ignored the Spartans, who has the nation’s No. 1 defense, with or without All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. The fiercest defense in the country delivered at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, without the senior who was suspended on Christmas night for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
There was no guarantee the Spartans would beat Stanford, not during the absence of the team’s unquestioned leader, and although Michigan State couldn’t expect anyone to replace the two-time team captain, fifth-year senior Kyler Elsworth filled Bullough’s void nicely. With the game on the line, Elsworth leapt over a pile of bodies and stopped Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt from converting on fourth down with less than 2 minutes left. The game was over when Elsworth made the initial hit while Darien Harris, Bullough’s other replacement, and defensive end Shilique Calhoun stopped him inches short of the first down.
If there was an unlikely hero — in the biggest play of the year — an incredible defensive stop that was indeed the play of the game, it probably was Elsworth. Before he chose to pursue football, and joined the MSU program, he was an all-around player, flourishing in baseball and wrestling. He’s been a wrestler since he was a kid, and went 67-0 as a senior and earned wrestling scholarships to Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana.
When he arrived to East Lansing, he had a passion for football and knew he wanted to be a standout linebacker for the Spartans. The opportunity finally came, and more importantly, he has shown us that he was up for the challenge and maybe was just as fierce as Bullough. He embraced his role as a middle linebacker and made the best of it, with one play that changed the dynamic of this game. Bullough’s absence didn’t affect a physical, fearsome Michigan State team unfazed by adversity.
This was the epitome of what it means to have the No. 1 defense in the country that can run with any program in the nation. And as much as we wondered about MSU without its star player, Elsworth started his first game in his last game and earned defensive player of the game honors. How about the idea of the Spartans holding Stanford to 71 yards on 27 carries in the final three quarters? The defense didn’t allow a touchdown after the game’s first drive and stopped Stanford’s power offense, shutting down running back Tyler Gaffney and quarterback Kevin Hogan.
It’s unreal, believe it or not, to see the Spartans finish 13-1 after a shameful September, a decent October and a dominant November. This was the unthinkable, and now they could end up No. 2 in the nation. This is very good news, for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a combined 13 points last season, for a team that was penalized in the final moments of the 2011 Big Ten championship game.
For all the noise, which was made at the Rose Bowl, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was better this year, even though he is a game manager backed by a stout defense. There isn’t much to say negative toward Cook, but he made some bad throws, none as bad as an ill-advised throw right into the hands of Stanford linebacker Kevin Anderson for a 40-yard pick six that gave the Cardinal a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.
It wasn’t long before the Spartans answered back on the following series with Cook driving the ball downfield for an eventual touchdown 28 seconds before halftime. Overall, Cook, who passed for a career-high 332 yards, had a very impressive game and truly showed promise in one game. The Rose Bowl is a notable playground for the Big Ten, and Michigan State achieved something special, ending the misery for a league that has won just one Rose Bowl since 2000, and was just 3-8 in BCS bowl games since 2005. Until now, Big Ten schools have played horribly here in Southern California.
By the look of it, the Spartans claimed their first top-five spot since 1966.
In the playoff era, MSU can reach the Final Four and possibly win a national championship. It makes perfect sense, considering that Cook and most of the team returns next season.
There’s no doubt in our minds that Michigan State simply is the powerhouse of the Big Ten.
The Spartans are national title bound, ladies and gentlemen.