December 30, 2010

Bowl victory would vault MSU to the next level

ORLANDO, Fla. - Mark Dantonio had no trouble finding a rallying cry and motivational theme during Michigan State's preparation for Saturday's Capital One Bowl against Alabama.

"Finish," Dantonio said. "We have come prepared in every bowl game we have played in (since I've beenhead caoch) but we have to finish. That's what we have to do this time. We have to finish.

"We have pointed toward a lot of goals and our seniors have accomplished a lot of them but that has been one of our goals that we haven't done yet. We need to accomplish that."

Among Michigan State's accomplishments this year:

  • Winning a share of the conference title for the first time since 1990.

  • Beginning a season 8-0 for the first time since 1966.

  • Winning at Penn State for the first time since 1965.

  • Beating Michigan for a third consecutive year for the first time since the mid-1960s.

  • Earning a bowl bid for a fourth consecutive season for the first time since 1987-90.

    Now, Michigan State wants to establish its first bowl victory under Dantonio, and its first since 2001, with the possibility of finishing in the national Top 5 for the first time since 1966.

    "The finish is the important thing," Dantonio said. "That's how you will be remembered and that's what the players will remember."

    There is a feeling that this season's edition of Spartans has a penchant for piling up shiny credentials and finishing tasks.

    "It's like the rest of the season," Michigan State linebackers coach Mike Tressel said earlier this week after practice at Freedom High School. "We’ve been in situations before where maybe in the past, we were happy to be in the situation, and this year, it’s 'OK, we expect to get this accomplished.' And same thing with the bowl game, or this particular bowl game. It's not be happy we're in the Capital One game, it's let's finish a great season off in a great way."

    Michigan State enjoyed its first 11-win season in school history this year. But the Spartans want more.

    "If we can win 12 football games this year, you are going to make a statement in terms of how the 2010 team will be viewed," Dantonio said.

    Players and coaches have reported a difference in bowl preparation this year. In '07, the Spartans were happy to break a streak of three seasons without a postseason appearance. In '08, the Spartans were pleased to play for a shot at the Big Ten title on the last day of the regular season and earn a bid to a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time since 1999. Last year, after a trying season of rebuilding and various obstacles, MSU felt good about merely maintaining its consecutive bowl streak.

    This year, there is a hunger to put an exclamation point on a landmark season.

    "I think the attitude has changed," said tight ends coach Mark Staten. "We've put it on them. I think Coach Dantonio has done a great job of putting it on the young people to say, 'Hey, this is your team, you're the ones out there making the plays, you're the ones out there making the blocks, making the tackles, so it's up to you.' And that's the attitude they've taken."

    The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title with a 7-1 conference record, tying with Ohio State and Wisconsin. Neither of those teams beat Michigan State, and the Spartans hold a victory over No. 3-ranked Wisconsin, but the Spartans were denied a trip to the Rose Bowl because Wisconsin enjoys a higher ranking in the BCS ratings.

    Meanwhile, the Spartans are a decided underdog against 9-3 Alabama, the defending National Champion.

    Hence the respect thing.

    "We have an opportunity to gain the respect we have been wanting to get this whole season," said sophomore linebacker Chris Norman.

    "We put ourselves in the top tier of the Big Ten by winning the conference championship," said junior left guard Joel Foreman. "To come here and play a great team like Alabama, the defending National Champions, and winning a game like that would put us in the national spotlight as well."

    "It's not just about making a bowl anymore," Staten said. "It's about taking it to the next level."

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