Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, January 6, 2015
The comeback was swift. It was impressive. It was decisive. There are no better ways to describe Michigan State?s effort vs. Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
The victory, one in which the Spartans trailed 41-21 entering the fourth quarter, also can be dubbed "fitting" for a program that has become a measuring stick in the Big Ten.
"I think this will go down in our recent history here as a game that was a program game," Mark Dantonio said. "We beat the No. 5 team and we moved forward with a national reputation and a national brand."
MSU now has won four bowls in a row, the longest such streak in the Big Ten. And in each game, the Spartans had to come from behind to win.
"It's just sort of crazy," said Dantonio, whose program is the only one to win a BCS/New Year?s Six bowl in each of the last two years. "I really probably can't put it into words. We just kept pace. We didn't panic."
Added Tony Lippett: "This means a lot, like I've been saying all week, this is a big stage game, at a big stadium, Jerry's world, to prove Michigan State can play with whoever, wherever. I give all the credit to the coaches for staying on us and not letting us get too up or too down.
"When we were down 34-14, I said we can't quit, and I was talking to (Jeremy) Langford, and I said this is gonna be a helluva Madden game. We have to keep scoring."
Calm. Cool. Collected. Composed. That epitomizes the Spartans program, which put yet another brick in the wall of what arguably has been the Big Ten?s best program over the last half decade.
Michigan State has posted at least 11 wins four times in the last five years. No Big Ten school can match that. Dantonio has led his program to two league title games in that span, winning it all in 2013 en route to taking the Rose Bowl.
In some ways, this past season may be one of the most gratifying of the Dantonio era. The Spartans began the season with the weight of great expectations coming off the program?s first Rose Bowl win since the 1987 season. Much was expected of the Spartans in 2014. The standard for many was a trip to the College Football Playoff.
"Everything's going sort of according to plan," Dantonio said Monday afternoon. "We're getting better, we're not fading away, we're getting better as we move forward, and the challenges are getting bigger."
Michigan State fell short of another Big Ten title, finishing 10-2 and in second place in the Big Ten East behind Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Oregon were the only teams to beat the Spartans this year. They also, of course, are the teams that will play for the national championship on Monday night in Arlington, Texas.
"I think we're looking at inches in terms of how far away are we from being in the game that everybody's anticipating this weekend," Dantonio said. "Things can fall either way, it can fall the other way, too as you can see last week."
While there are no division or league titles this season, the fact Michigan State could still play at a high level and deliver another double-digit victory season shows the bedrock on which this program is built.
It wasn?t like this before Dantonio arrived from Cincinnati in 2007. This was an underachieving program under John L. Smith. Time and again, the Spartans were undone by undisciplined play. Talent wasn?t lacking. But an attention to detail was. Enter Dantonio, a hard-edge coach who instilled needed discipline while fostering a sense of team and community.
This coming season also teems with potential for Michigan State. Quarterback Connor Cook is back, along with five offensive linemen with starting experience. There also are some good wideouts returning, including Macgarrett Kings, Jr., Aaron Burbridge and A.J. Troup. But Langford and Lippett are gone. The defense will feature weaponry in the form of tackle Lawrence Thomas, linebacker Ed Davis and safety Montae Nicholson while dealing with the early departure of corner Trae Waynes to the NFL.
But the biggest loss may be defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is off to coach Pitt.
"It was tough. That's my boss, the guy I love," said Narduzzi about leaving Dantonio. "And it's not easy, been with him 11 years, never easy."
Added Dantonio: "To win the last game like that for Coach Narduzzi was something, and that will be a memory for life. He's been incredibly loyal here, he's a hard worker.
"Now it's time for him to grow, and he'll grow as the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh."
Whatever success Michigan State fosters in 2015 as it continues to deal with Ohio State and the arrival of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, it can look back on the win vs. Baylor as a kick-start while also being the capper to a key season.
"This was about holding ground a little bit more," said Dantonio, whose Spartans could be on the verge of consecutive season-ending top-five rankings for the first time since 1965 and 1966. "This was about being the favorite team going into the Ohio State game maybe or this is about being the team that had to go to Oregon and it was maybe a toss-up, and it was about handling success."
With more surely to come.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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