With nearly a week having passed, Michigan Stateâ€™s Rose Bowl victory is no less sweet.
Guided by a balanced attack on offense and a suffocating defense, the Spartans earned a program-defining 24-20 win over the Stanford Cardinal, bringing visions of more success to an excited Spartan Nation.
The Spartan Nation Shows Up
While Pasadena sits over 2,000 miles from East Lansing, the Spartan Nation showed up in force. Green and White faithful flooded the stands at the Rose Bowl Stadium for MSUâ€™s first appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All since 1988.
The Michigan State fans in attendance made their presence known to a national televised audience of approximately 20 million viewers (according to variety.com), roaring often as the Spartans succeeded in taking down the favored Cardinal.
Head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans noticed.
â€œThey showed up en masse, and I thought our fans were tremendous,â€ Dantonio said.
MSU faithful had plenty to cheer about, as defensive coordinator Pat Narduzziâ€™s men stifled a high-powered Cardinal offense and Connor Cook led a balanced attack on offense. But it wasnâ€™t always easy.
Finding the Inches
Mark Dantonio has been talking about â€œfinding the inchesâ€ since the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU at the end of last season. In an ESPN interview in August, Dantonio stressed the importance of this phrase and coming up with big plays at the right times.
The Spartans did just that last Wednesday.
The Cardinal started off strong, driving down the field for a touchdown on its first possession. Stanford owned a 10-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Cook and Co. responded with a touchdown drive early in the third, but the Spartans were dealt a bruising blow later in the quarter. Cook tossed an interception into the arms of Stanfordâ€™s Kevin Anderson, who returned it 40 yards for a score. Down 17-7 with 2:07 left in the half, the Spartans needed a spark.
â€œI really felt like as a football team, in the first half, we didnâ€™t really have that flash, the emotion we usually have,â€ Dantonio said following the game.
But Cook found the inches on the ensuing possession. The sophomore orchestrated a lengthy touchdown drive to bring the Spartans to within three points as the squads entered the locker room.
Dantonio never doubted his emerging star signalcaller, even after the pick-six.
â€œI have a lot of faith in him,â€ Dantonio said. â€œIâ€™ve seen him perform and I know him as a person. He doesnâ€™t get rattled …Thatâ€™s huge when youâ€™re a quarterback.â€
The Spartans regrouped at halftime and roared out of the gate with a renewed vigor and energy. While the MSU offense took a 24-17 lead, the defense allowed Stanford to pick up just one first down on the Cardinalâ€™s first four drives of the half.
â€œWe collected ourselves, weâ€™re a very resilient football team,â€ Dantonio said. â€œI owe that to the leadership of our football team at the ground level: our seniors, quarterback. We were able to bounce back from a bad play here or there and just maintain.â€
The Cardinal made a valiant effort to overcome the deficit against the stout Spartans defense. Stanfordâ€™s Jordan Williamson hit a 39-yard field goal with 4:46 remaining to narrow the gap to 24-20. MSU could not pick up a first down on the following drive, but that was no problem for Narduzziâ€™s group.
Following three unsuccessful attempts to pick up a first down, Stanford faced a crucial fourth-and-1 from its own 34-yard line with 1:46 left. Head coach David Shaw pondered his options during an MSU timeout. He opted for a halfback dive, and the result was epic for the Spartans. Linebacker Kyler Elsworth, playing in place of Max Bullough, leaped over a heap of linemen and crashed into Stanfordâ€™s Ryan Hewitt, preventing the senior fullback from picking up the critical first down.
Elsworth, a former walk-on, earned the defensive MVP of the game honors for his incredible stop and stellar evening.
â€œKyler Elsworth had a chance to make a play, and he made the play of the game,â€ Dantonio said.
Words canâ€™t capture what last weekâ€™s Rose Bowl win means to the Spartan football program. â€œHugeâ€ and â€œprogram-definingâ€ just begin to scratch the surface.
Linebacker Denicos Allen could only begin to describe the awesome feeling of victory.
â€œAs a senior, thereâ€™s a lot of emotions going through my mind right now,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s everything I asked for, everything you want as a senior, a perfect ending â€¦ Ever since I committed here in 2009, Iâ€™ve been chasing to be a Rose Bowl champ. And to do that as a senior, the last game of your career is amazing. Itâ€™s pretty surreal right now, it hasnâ€™t even hit me.â€
Typically stoic on the sidelines, Dantonio also showed some joy and emotion following the win.
â€œAt every level, Iâ€™m excited for our football team and our players, for our Spartan fans and families and our coaches,â€ Dantonio said. â€œI just feel so content, and humbled really, by all the support that we get and the things that are given to us by our administration and by our President and our Athletic Director, Mark Hollis. Iâ€™m sort of living a dream.â€
With a big program win under his belt, Dantonio hopes to build on this victory. The veteran coach already has a solid foundation in place in East Lansing.
â€œOur plan is to keep winning,â€ he said. â€œI gave it away when I said, â€˜Why not us?â€™ a couple of weeks ago. I think we can compete with anybody in this country and we could have last year. You just have to find the inches. You gotta execute, you gotta find the inches, and more importantly, you gotta believe that you belong there too. You canâ€™t second guess yourself, you gotta dream big. Itâ€™s been done here before and I think thereâ€™s possibilities that you can do it here again. But you gotta take it one game at a time. We have to build for 2014.â€
Dantonio clearly has his quarterback in Connor Cook. Without a doubt, the incoming junior is the quarterback of the future.
Cook showed vast improvement over the course of the season, growing into the starting role after entering the offseason as the backup to Andrew Maxwell.
â€œHe just continues to impress,â€ Dantonio said of Cook. â€œIâ€™m not sure how many yards he threw for, but I think he had 229 in the first half â€¦ Just to overcome adversity, thatâ€™s what you have to do to play better. You have to take advantage of the situation and you have to overcome adversity â€¦ That was a great job by him in all respects.â€
Allen has no doubt that Cook will take over as a team leader and guide the program to heights not reached in quite some time.
â€œI told Connor, I have faith in him. I can tell you want it, youâ€™re a champion, you have heart,â€ Allen said. â€œI told him that before the game, stay confident. Iâ€™m confident in him and all the younger guys. You have a great group of kids. I feel like the underclassmen really took how we played â€¦ and how we attacked practice and they learned. I feel like theyâ€™ll continue that next year. I wouldnâ€™t say we have the best senior class. I would say that we have the best mentality, the best attitude. Thatâ€™s contagious. Once youâ€™re around that, you pick it up.â€
To the joy of the Spartan Nation, the future is bright for the Green and White. Following a huge Rose Bowl win, Dantonio has the Spartans on a golden path that might lead to more, and bigger, victories in years to come.