Spartans still hoping for Rose Bowl breakthrough
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)
''Our big goal is to get to the Rose Bowl, the BCS games and the national championship,'' said Andrew Maxwell, who is set to take over at quarterback. ''We haven't accomplished that yet. But for me, the only pressure is to do my job the best that I can. If I can do that, we can really be a special team.''
Dantonio's team has certainly come close. Two years ago, Michigan State finished in a three-way tie at the top of the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Ohio State, losing out to the Badgers in a tiebreaker despite a victory against them. Last season, the Spartans made it to the first Big Ten championship game but lost a 42-39 thriller to Wisconsin.
Now Michigan State has to move on without quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is in the NFL. The defense should make the Spartans a threat again, but they'll have a lot to prove.
After that gut-wrenching loss to Wisconsin, Michigan State did take a crucial step forward by beating Georgia in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl. It was the program's first bowl victory since 2001.
Le'Veon Bell returns after running for 948 yards last season, but the passing game is the big question mark. Not only is Maxwell moving up after throwing only 51 passes the last two years, but Michigan State also needs to replace receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.
Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett was granted a waiver to play without sitting out a year after transferring from Tennessee to be closer to his ailing father. Arnett could help make the transition period a little easier for Maxwell.
''I'm so confident about Maxwell. He's a natural, born leader,'' Bell said. ''He has the quarterback swag. He's outspoken. He's a real smart guy and knows where to go with the ball before the play starts, and he'll change a play if he knows it won't work.''
No matter what the offense does, the Spartans should be able to lean on a defense that returns eight starters. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy left early for the NFL draft, but Michigan State should be able to withstand that departure. Defensive end William Gholston looks ready to become a star, and linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Johnny Allen are also dependable.
''Until I'm perfect, I've got a lot of room to grow, but we have even more speed this year,'' Gholston said. ''We're all faster. We all know what to expect, and we know how to counteract it.''
Michigan State opens the season Aug. 31 with a marquee nonconference game against Boise State, and the Spartans will host Notre Dame a couple weeks later. After that, the focus will turn quickly to the Big Ten schedule. Ohio State comes to Spartan Stadium on Sept. 29. On Oct. 20, Michigan State plays at Michigan looking for an almost unimaginable fifth straight win in the series.
''It's the emphasis that Coach Dantonio places on it and the attitude that everyone approaches that game with. It's THE game on our schedule,'' Maxwell said. ''The day the schedule comes out, we look to see what day we play Michigan, and we circle that. It's on our minds the whole year.''
The game against Michigan could help decide the Legends Division title. Of course, just one week later, the Spartans play at Wisconsin - a reminder of just how close Michigan State came to achieving its Rose Bowl dream last year.
Michigan might be the biggest game on Michigan State's schedule, but winning that one isn't the only goal. The Spartans have progressed to the point where they feel they can compete with the best teams anywhere in the country.
''Ultimately, we don't want to lose a game,'' Gholston said. ''It's really up to us how far we go, but I think people have started to respect us a little more. I really appreciate that.''