Ready for Battle
Win in Indy guarantees Rose Bowl
As fans were ushered down the steps and out the exit of Lucas Oil Stadium into a chilly Indianapolis night, Denicos Allen witnessed something he’d never seen before.
Max Bullough was there, too — he remembers it well.
The then-sophomore linebackers were forced to watch several members of the 2011 Spartans, a band of brothers toward the end of a special season, break down in tears. Moments earlier, the final whistle sounded in a 42-39 loss to Wisconsin, one that slipped away in the waning moments following a penalty to safety Isaiah Lewis, giving the Badgers a first down, the clock and an eventual trip to the Rose Bowl.
But heartbreaking as it might have been, that was the night Bullough vowed to get back.
It couldn’t end this way, and he never intended it to. On Saturday, he’ll get his shot.
For the second time in three seasons, the No. 10 Spartans (11-1 overall, 8-0 Big Ten) will play in the Big Ten Championship Game, this time taking on No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) for a chance to go the Rose Bowl.
When asked if he can imagine the feeling of winning the Big Ten Championship Game, Bullough said he couldn’t — but he hopes the level of excitement is larger than any win he’s experienced in his career.
“I probably can’t imagine it,” Bullough said. “On the flip side, I’ve been a part of some pretty cool wins, too, whether it’s a last?second win or a win over a big opponent or whatever it is. Those have been feelings that have been unbelievable. That’s also why you play the game, to have the game come down to the end and you make a play and they don’t make a play.
“That’s definitely a feeling I haven’t felt.”
Smelling the roses
College football circles have been kicking around the idea all week. Like it or not, it keeps coming up.
The theory indicates that regardless if the Spartans defeat the Buckeyes on Saturday, MSU will be headed to the Rose Bowl.
It’s not as farfetched as once imagined.
A Spartan loss likely would propel the No. 2 Buckeyes into the BCS National Championship Game for a date with No. 1 Florida State or another opponent, depending on how the Seminoles do against No. 20 Duke in the ACC Championship Game. In that case, the Spartans present the Big Ten’s next strongest case to make a trip to Pasadena.
Of course, an MSU win outright punches a ticket to the Rose Bowl, thus ending a drought older than any player on either team playing in the Big Ten Championship Game.
However, head coach Mark Dantonio wouldn’t have any discussion about scenarios involving a loss when he met with the media this week.
Dantonio affirmed that he doesn’t expect to lose another game this season — a sentiment of the “Why not us?” attitude the seventh-year head coach has adopted all week.
“Our goal is to go to the Rose Bowl,” Dantonio said. “Our goal is to win this football game, and those are the thoughts that we have right now. So to think about anything beyond that is really — it’s just sort of a waste of my time right now.
“We’ll be ready to play.”
The desire to win a football game isn’t exactly a groundbreaking feeling for a football coach to have. But it’s the genuine intensity to play for the win, even as favorable circumstances present themselves, that has set Dantonio apart since he came back to East Lansing in 2007.
Senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler said there’s a variety of factors that have molded the Spartans into the hard-nosed, win-or-die philosophy of their coach.
“Coach D is a guy that believes in discipline, a family atmosphere, and that’s what we are as a team,” Fowler said. “If you looked at teams throughout the nation, throughout the country, it’s about chemistry, and those are the teams that win. That’s the reason why we win, (it’s that) we have a good chemistry with our team.”
Roses are red
On Saturday night, the Spartans will be staring down one of college football’s most historic programs, as well as perhaps the most talented team in the country.
The Buckeyes have not lost a game in two seasons — largely a result of quarterback Braxton Miller, who captured his second consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award this season.
Miller finished the 2013 regular season with 1,759 passing yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 891 yards and eight touchdowns.
Running backs Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall present a two-headed monster in the backfield, as the duo nearly combined to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
Not to mention the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes feature a talented corner tandem of Bradley Roby and Doran Grant while linebacker Ryan Shazier finished off another stellar season to find his name among the Big Ten’s top defensive players this year.
Since Urban Meyer, a former head coach at Florida and Utah and former ESPN college football analyst, took over as Ohio State’s head coach in 2012, there have been few teams who have been able to challenge the Buckeyes on the gridiron.
The closest any team has come to beating the Buckeyes, aside from last week’s 42-41 shootout with Michigan, was a late Sept. 2012 game with the Spartans, as Meyer won his first Big Ten road game in a 17-16 slugfest.
“This is a game; I’m sure it’s gonna be a big-time atmosphere, and my job is simple: Make sure our team is focused,” Meyer said of the matchup. “That’s the secret. And I’m sure Michigan State will say the same thing. Because there’s gonna be a lot of build-up to this game.”
As far as anyone in MSU’s locker room is concerned, records can be thrown out the window. As it pertains to the Big Ten Championship Game, they are of no consequence to the team.
Every single person knows what’s on the line. By now, it’s unmistakable.
Returning to the scene of a giant heartbreak, the best Allen can hope for is that any tears flowing in MSU’s locker room late Saturday night will be ones of triumph, completing a journey now 735 days in the making.
“If we go (to Pasadena), we’ll be a part of school history forever,” Allen said. “To do it in this season with all the accomplishments we had this season, it’d be the perfect ending.
“It would be the perfect ending for a historical team.”