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Sports: Spartans Stun Baylor in Cotton Bowl Thriller

  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Winter 2015

            Once again finishing the regular season with a Top 10 ranking, the Spartans earned a coveted spot in the "New Year's Six" elite games to face No. 5 Baylor at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

            Or MSU beat/lost the Bears to extend their school-record bowl winning streak to four.  **If they lose, add - All three of MSU's losses have come against Top 5 teams.

            In eight years at the helm, Coach Mark Dantonio and his staff have led the Spartans to seven winning seasons, racking up 10 or more wins in four of the last five years. Prior to 2010, MSU had just two 10-win seasons, 1965 and 1999.

            Spartan football has excelled in the postseason as of late. MSU boasts three (four if they win) straight bowl wins against opponents from the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, including its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987-88 season. Dantonio also has beaten archrival Michigan in six of the last seven years, perhaps in response to the infamous “little brother” insult levied by a Wolverine in 2007.

            After opening 2014 with a 45-7 rout of Jacksonville State, the defending Rose Bowl champions headed west to face No. 3 Oregon. A national TV audience saw MSU dominate the Ducks for more than half the game. But Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota made a second-half “miracle” completion that sparked Oregon to a series of explosive scoring plays en route to a 46-27 win. 

            Under Dantonio's leadership, Spartan teams have reacted well to adversity, and this year’s team did just that—beating its next opponents (Eastern Michigan and Wyoming) by a combined score of 129-28. The Spartan defense continued its trademark stinginess under coordinator Pat Narduzzi—last year’s winner of the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant coach. In addition, the offense showed incredible explosiveness behind the arm of quarterback Connor Cook, the consistent rushing of senior tailback Jeremy Langford, the versatility and astounding playmaking of senior wide receiver Tony Lippett, and a machine-like offensive line. 

            MSU opened conference play at home in a night game against then-No. 19 Nebraska. By halftime, the Spartans had totally dominated the Cornhuskers and led 17-3. The defense seemed to relax in the second half, allowing Nebraska three fourth-quarter touchdowns to narrow the margin. MSU’s defense did manage to hold running back Ameer Abdullah, then the nation's second-leading rusher, to a mere 45 yards on 24 carries.

            After quotidian wins over Purdue, 45-31, and Indiana, 56-17, MSU faced Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games. The Spartans methodically demolished the Wolverines for the fourth straight time in Spartan Stadium, scoring a historical best 35 points in the series including three rushing touchdowns against a defense that had allowed only one in its previous five games. Junior safety R.J. Williamson sealed the 35-11 win with a late interception for a touchdown. 

            The rivalry win set up a showdown against then-No. 14 Ohio State on Nov. 8. A clash between the top two Big Ten teams had enough national cachet to bring ESPN’s College Gameday to East Lansing. The Buckeyes were motivated to avenge last year’s Big Ten championship loss to MSU and played with laser-like intensity, upsetting the Spartans, 49-37. The loss all but dashed MSU’s hopes to make the new College Football Playoff and vie for the national title. The Buckeyes came on strong after trailing early and delivered some explosive scoring plays, thanks to redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett.

            MSU missed a great opportunity to solidify its national brand as the loss snapped a 14-game conference winning streak and knocked the Spartans out of contention to repeat as Big Ten champs. Even with much of its initial motivation gone, the Spartans finished in impressive fashion—winning their last three games by a combined 116-28 at Maryland, against Rutgers and at Penn State. The dominant finish made a clear statement about the team’s character and vaulted MSU into the Top 10 of all three major polls—by the media, the coaches and the playoffs committee.

            This season MSU football attained Top 10 national rankings across a number of key statistics on both defense and offense. The Spartans ranked in the Top 10 in total defense and in scoring offense averaging 43 points a game—the most in school history. MSU also led the nation in turnover margin, a key point of emphasis for the program.

            Last season, the MSU defense captured national attention with its “No Fly Zone” and relentless pressure. This year the offense, perhaps with less fanfare, came close to becoming a juggernaut. Without counting the bowl game, MSU set all-time season records in scoring, total yardage and touchdowns, both offensive and rushing (517 points, 5,958 yards, 64 offensive and 40 rushing TDs). 

            Many individuals stood out in 2014. Wideout Tony Lippett, who also started some games at cornerback, proved to be a human highlight film with spectacular catches. He and fellow senior safety Kurtis Drummond, made First Team All-Big Ten, along with juniors Trae Waynes at cornerback and Shilique Calhoun at defensive end. Junior quarterback Connor Cook was a Second Team selection. MSU center Jack Allen also won First Team All-Big Ten honors, while Travis Jackson and Jack Conklin earned Second Team honors. 

            Langford boasts 1,360 yards and 19 touchdowns this season and nine 100-yards-plus rushing games. Senior defensive end Marcus Rush, one of MSU’s most consistent, high-motor performers, now holds the MSU record for most career starts with 52. Senior wide receiver Keith Mumphery not only made key receptions, he won the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award—representative of the MSU team’s character under Dantonio.

            For much of the season, MSU was in the national championship conversation, perhaps for the first time since the mid-1960s.

            "We have made great progress and I think that it is coaching, it's players, it's confidence, it's execution,” explains Dantonio. “There are a lot of different reasons for it; it's technique but I think more than anything it's just the collective effort by everybody to move forward.”

            Dantonio likes to credit his players and his assistants, coordinators Narduzzi, James Bollman and Dave Warner, along with Harlon Barnett, Ron Burton, Terrence Samuel, Brad Salem, Mark Staten and Mike Tressel. However, Dantonio deserves the most credit for turning this program around.  As Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press writes, “Dantonio is on the statue plan.  He might have one someday on the MSU campus (and I assume it will look just like James Brolin without a beard).”