Spartans ready to move on, welcome new leaders after 2011; Dantonio focused on Rose Bowl
Then-sophomore running back Le’Veon Bell gestures to the crowd after running into the end zone for his first touchdown of the game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Monday Jan. 2, 2012 at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. at the Outback Bowl. State News File Photo
One extra step. One outstretched arm. One quick second, and it was over. Done.
A flag was thrown, a knee was taken and in that moment came the realization that the promise of a Rose Bowl berth that Mark Dantonio made when he stepped to the podium five years earlier would have to wait at least one more year.
This January will mark the 25th anniversary of the MSU football team’s last trip to Pasadena, Calif., and although some of the sting is gone from the Spartans’ heartbreaking 42-39 loss to Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game a season ago, the motivation to achieve what might have been one penalty flag away lives on.
When Dantonio thinks back to the fateful night of Dec. 3 — when a roughing the kicker penalty with just over a minute to play ended any chance at victory — his thoughts aren’t those of remorse, but pride.
Dantonio repeatedly has deflected criticism away from junior safety Isaiah Lewis, who committed the penalty, and said his decision was based on a desire to give his team the best chance to win.
“If you’re not going to play to win, if you’re not going to take the risk, then you’re playing the wrong game,” Dantonio said.
Head coach Mark Dantonio speaks to the media on Dec. 4, 2011, at the conclusion of Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Sate News File Photo
“Yeah, it’s disappointing, but life goes on. There’s a lot of disappointments in this world, but we’re very fortunate and blessed to be in that spot. We competed. I’ve always said if we do the very best we can and everybody lays it on the line, I can handle defeat. … We didn’t (win), and, for some people, maybe it was disheartening; but in the end, we did everything we could and we didn’t leave one card unplayed, and I think that’s a testament to our football team and our coaches.”
Lewis said the moments following the game were tough, but he’s moved past the disappointment and is using the play to help fuel him this season.
After posting 74 tackles and nabbing four interceptions as a fresh-faced first-year starter last season, Lewis has become the veteran safety, helping the new youngsters eager to replace safety Trenton Robinson, who was selected in April’s NFL Draft.
It was from Robinson’s tutelage that Lewis said he was able to become a playmaker as a sophomore, and he’s hoping to impart that wisdom to sophomore Kurtis Drummond, freshman Demetrious Cox and redshirt freshman RJ Williamson, who will be competing to play alongside him on Saturdays.
“(Robinson) helped me a lot. I just watched him and saw how he led, (and) I learned from him,” Lewis said. “(So for) the younger safeties now, it’s easier to teach them after watching him and what he did.”
The Spartans also are looking to replace defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, and after a big game against Georgia in the Outback Bowl, senior defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White has become the most popular name among the coaching staff.
White posted career highs with seven tackles, including three for a loss, and blocked a field goal in overtime to secure MSU’s first bowl win in more than a decade.
Defensive line coach Ted Gill said it will be critical for White to build off his success from last season because it’s his final year on campus, and to this point, the former junior college transfer has picked up right where he left off.
“I think the thing that helped him last year was having (Worthy) bring him along,” Gill said. “He really worked to learn a lot from Jerel, and I think that made him a lot better player.”
The transition from junior college to a Division I program is one that Gill said many players struggle with, but through working with Worthy and continuing to develop his game, White has been able to break the mold.
“This is his third year in our program, and we’re excited about where he is at this point,” Gill said. “Usually (for) guys who come in like that, it’s hard for them to really get going, but he’s adapted really well.”
Reaching for roses
But the starter with the most eyes on him will be junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell as he takes over for Kirk Cousins, the winningest quarterback in MSU history.
The last time the Spartans replaced a quarterback was 2009, after Brian Hoyer left for the NFL Draft, and the team struggled to a 6-7 record.
Dantonio said the coaching staff has learned from that experience and believes this transition will be much smoother, in large part because of the increased depth within the program and Maxwell’s three years in the system.
“He hasn’t taken the game over and made that play at the end of the game, but I think he’s a very confident person. And I don’t think he lets things bother him,” Dantonio said. “He lets things roll off his shoulders a little bit; he understands the pressures of playing quarterback, (and) he also understands the pressures of playing here. He’s seen it firsthand.”
Helping Maxwell’s transition is an experienced offensive line and proven backfield, led by running backs senior Larry Caper and junior Le’Veon Bell, who will be taking the full-time duties following the departure of Edwin Baker.
But as Dantonio looks ahead to another season, his focus remains on the Rose Bowl and acing the Spartans’ biggest test.
“Everybody wants an A, and that’s our A in our class. We have to measure ourselves by that, ultimately,” Dantonio said. “You want to be standing at the top, so that’s always been where we’ve pointed, and that’s something we’ll continue to point to. And if we get an A and go to the Rose Bowl, then next year we’ll want another A. I just think that’s how we have to be built here.”