Dantonio: "This year's mantra? Chase it."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, while addressing a large media gathering Wednesday afternoon at the Chicago Hilton, was asked what the mantra was for this year’s football team.
“This year’s mantra?” he said rhetorically. “Chase it! Simple.”
What his Spartans are chasing is a Rose Bowl berth, something they have not gained in the past 26 years. Dantonio has Rose Bowl logos on the fences that line the practice fields in East Lansing and drums the “dream” into the consciousness of his players at every opportunity.
Last year’s team was the favorite for Pasadena heading into Big Ten play, but ended up salvaging a winning record with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over Texas Christian.
Michigan State finished 7-6. They were humbled by Notre Dame, 20-3, while having a sub-par offense exposed. The Spartans then proceeded to lose five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points – falling by a field goal or less to Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa (in overtime).
“But 2012 was the year of the inches that we didn't come up with,” Dantonio said at the Big Ten’s football media day. “We're excited about 2013 coming, and look forward to it. We sort of feel like our football team has a little bit of an edge to them right now.”
The “edge” Dantonio is referring to is that of a team with a chip on its shoulder. That feeling comes quite naturally when expectations are not met the previous season.
“Six straight bowl games for us,” Dantonio added. “The last two we were able to win. There is a feeling, I think, among our football team of a foundation (that) has been laid. But we're still chasing a dream right now.”
He later added, “And it will always be our hope to chase the dream as I said, to go to the Rose Bowl, to become a champion at the highest level, to get into the championship format.”
The Spartans last played in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1988, beating Southern Cal, 20-17, with tailback Lorenzo White and receiver Andre Rison sparking the offense.
Minnesota and Indiana are the only other original Big Ten teams that have not played in the Rose Bowl since MSU last did. Michigan leads with eight appearances and Wisconsin has five. Ohio State and Penn State have two apiece. Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa each have appeared in Pasadena once since the 1988 season.
There is little doubt that the Spartans have the defense to reach the Rose Bowl or at least another BCS bowl game.
Middle linebacker Max Bullough – on the watch lists for the Butkus, Lombardi and Bednarik Awards as well as the Bronko Nagurski and Lott Trophies – is one of the country’s premier players. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard, end Marcus Rush and strong safety Isaiah Lewis are Big Ten standouts, and Dantonio is excited about red-shirt freshman cornerback Trae Waynes replacing Johnny Adams.
“Trae Waynes is going to be an outstanding player for us,” Dantonio said. “A four-year starter or a three-year starter.”
That “three-year starter” qualifier made it clear Dantonio believes Waynes has enough talent to leave for the NFL Draft after his junior year. That’s what star tailback Le’Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston did after 2012.
Bell rushed for 1,793 yards, and Sims was the top passing target when healthy. So the top two weapons are gone from an offense that sputtered and exceeded 20 points only three times in conference games.
Returning backs were so unimpressive in spring practice that Riley Bullough was moved from linebacker to tailback and made a favorable impression after the switch. Three freshmen backs – Flint’s Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams – could provide the shot in the arm required.
Whether returning starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell (2,606 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions) can hold off sophomore Connor Cook and freshman Damion Terry remains to be seen.
“Right now Andrew is our number one quarterback,” Dantonio said. “He's got a great deal of experience and a lot of confidence right now. With that said, Connor Cook has played as everybody knows, and I think that's a big positive for us.”
Dantonio added, “Damion Terry comes in as a true freshman. Outstanding athlete and big body, 230-pound guy.”
The offensive line must replace three starters, and the wide receivers (Aaron Burbridge has great potential) also are in flux.
Michigan State's questionable offense will likely determine if the Spartans chase their “dream” all the way to Pasadena.