INDIANAPOLIS — All year long they’ve talked about goals.
The Michigan State Spartans weren’t happy with last season, even if most teams would’ve been. A year after winning a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship, a second-place finish in the Big Ten East Division and a win in the Cotton Bowl would have to do.
They didn’t like that. Not one bit.
So this year, the goal was clear. Avoid the feeling of not playing for a conference title. Avoid the feeling of being left out of the College Football Playoff. Avoid the feeling of not playing for a national championship.
The Spartans knocked off the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, 16-13, in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium. And while Michigan State’s checklist isn’t done yet, not with games still to be played, at least consider the first few parts of this mission accomplished.
“It’s special to have this opportunity to be Big Ten champions,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said after Saturday night’s win. “First to be East Division champions, it’s special, and then to be a Big Ten champion, it’s amazing. It’s the reason why you come to a Big Ten school, to have the opportunity to play in this game, let alone win it. It’s amazing, I’m pretty sure my teammates are all smiles today. I look forward to a great Sunday because that’s when we’ll really realize that we won it all.”
After three quarters and five field goals, it looked like it was going to be a ho-hum night. After Iowa kicked off the fourth quarter with an 85-yard touchdown pass, it looked like that might be enough to keep the Spartans down.
But anyone who believed Michigan State dead after going down by just four points with plenty of time left on the clock obviously hasn’t watched many Spartan games this season.
This is the same team that pulled out its two signature regular-season wins in the most clutch of fashions. This is the team that took a fumbled punt back for a walk-off touchdown at the Big House. This is the team that kicked a walk-off field goal to beat Ohio State.
And now this is the team that went on a 22-play, 82-yard, nine-minute drive to soak up almost all the time remaining in the Big Ten title game, getting a go-ahead touchdown on an LJ Scott stretch with 27 seconds left to play.
Just another day at the office for these Spartans.
“We’re a tough unit, and throughout this whole year, nothing has been easy for us and we’ve had to push through in those last minutes. We’ve done that all year,” center Jack Allen said. “And there were haters at times when they were saying, ‘Why can’t these guys get it together?’ But we just cared about the guys in that room, and we just kept pushing for each other.”
With a Big Ten East Division title already in tow, the Spartans took to the postgame podium on the confetti-strewn turf and checked another box on this season’s to-do list. Head coach Mark Dantonio raised the Big Ten championship trophy, stealing a championship hat away from one of his players in the process. Hugs all around, the fight song blaring, celebrations in the locker room.
And now it’s on to the next.
“I think we’re hungry,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We’re in the Playoff. That’s something this program’s never done, somewhere our program’s never been. Like Coach D’s motto, we’re just going to keep reaching higher.”
Michigan State has been like this for the last few years now. Dantonio has led the Spartans to at least 11 wins in five of the past six seasons, a Big Ten record. This wasn’t Michigan State’s coming-out party, this was a college football power getting the job done.
But as great a program as Dantonio has built in East Lansing, the Spartans have now reached the point they’d yet to reach under the eighth-year head coach. In the past two seasons, a conference championship was won, a Rose Bowl was won, a Cotton Bowl was won. But Michigan State hasn’t played for a national championship.
It will now.
With Saturday night’s win comes a ticket to the College Football Playoff. That’s not yet official, of course, but it’s expected by so many, it’s practically fact. With the Nos. 4 and 5 teams squaring off in Indy, the Big Ten title bout was a de facto national quarterfinal. Now it’s on to the semi for the winner.
Michigan State will find out who it plays in the Playoff when the pairings are announced Sunday. But while that remains an unknown for the next few hours, what is a known is that the Spartans will be competing for a national championship.
“I tell our football team, dream big,” Dantonio said. “We have world-class athletes on our football team. They’re capable of so much, especially when they believe those things. I think, like I said before, we know how to win. There's a belief system. I've said it every single year. We have great chemistry in our football team. That's provided by our seniors. That's provided by our upperclassmen who have been here to this game before. Because of that chemistry, it creates energy, positive energy. That energy goes a long way. When you got to reach down when things aren't quite going so well for you, you got to reach down and you got to find something to grind out, to fight back in some way, we've been able to do that. Championship football teams do that. They do. They just know how to do it.”
For so long, Michigan State has had to deal with “little brother” comments and disrespect from a national media that still can’t seem to spell Mark Dantonio correctly. The Spartans weren’t in the same class as Ohio State or Michigan, they said.
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Well now Michigan State is off to the College Football Playoff, off to compete for a national title. It was the Spartans — not the Buckeyes or Wolverines — in position to do that Saturday night, and they got the job done.
But don’t think for one second this is going to change ol’ Sparty.
Dantonio was asked during a Friday press conference if he thought getting to the sport’s ultimate level would change his team’s attitude, make them expect winning rather than act like underdogs. He said he hoped not.
Well, he doesn’t have to hope any longer.
“We still have a lot to prove. We still need to keep fighting. We’re always going to have that chip because there’s always going to be some level of disrespect where people don’t respect the Spartans. I don’t mind it. I like it,” Calhoun said. “It’s kind of natural now. It’s one of those things that we just have regardless. It could be someone making a meme of us, and it’s like, ‘There goes the chip again.’
“I think we’ll always have that chip on our shoulder because of the program that we have and because of the head coach that we have and the way that he motivates us. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another that we’ll use as a chip.”