PASADENA, Calif. – Mark Hollis stood outside the Michigan State locker room Wednesday night with a rose in his right hand, a beaming smile on his face and the usual outlandish dreams bouncing around his head.
Hollis is the first athletic director to conceive of basketball on an aircraft carrier. It was his idea to play a basketball game in the middle of Ford Field and set a national attendance record. He pioneered outdoor hockey in front of huge crowds as well.
What will he think of next?
How about the crazy concept of the Spartans as football national champions?
Any reason, Mark, why it can’t happen?
“None at all,” he said crisply.
“I learned we can,” Hollis said. “I learned Michigan State can.”
That was the Rose Bowl revelation for what had been a can’t-do program for many frustrating years. In the quarter century since the Spartans were last here, they had often been good but never been great – always falling short of achieving something special.
From an inglorious September to a solid October and a dominant November, the Spartans gave themselves a shot at doing something great. Then they broke form by actually delivering on it: shocking Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and outwilling favored Stanford here in the Rose Bowl, 24-20. They finished 13-1 and could end up No. 2 in the nation in the final rankings.
And then look out for the mean green in 2014.
They return a quarterback, Connor Cook, who is getting better with every start. Cook wasn’t even the starter at the beginning of the year, but he finished it with 304 passing yards against Ohio State and then 332 against the excellent defense of the Cardinal. He could be the preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten, even if Braxton Miller returns at Ohio State.
They return a running back, Jeremy Langford, who thundered for more than 1,300 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. And a pair of receivers, Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who tied for the team lead with 39 catches each. And a defensive end, Shilique Calhoun, who was the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. And a first-team All-Big Ten safety, Kurtis Drummond.
So, what the heck, I asked coach Mark Dantonio if the school’s first national championship since 1966 is a possible next step in the program’s ascent.
“That's our plan,” he said. “Our plan is to keep winning. Our plan is that we're one game away. I said why not us a couple weeks ago (in the BCS championship game conversation, as opposed to one-loss Auburn). I think we can compete with anybody in this country.
“I think we could have last year (when Michigan State was a disappointing 7-6). You've just got to find the inches. You've got to execute, you've got to find the inches, and more importantly probably, you've got to believe that you belong there, too. You can't second guess yourself. You have to dream big. It's been done here before, and I think that the responsibility is that you can do it again.”
This triumph didn’t just restore belief in Michigan State as an elite program, it was a major boost for the Big Ten in its argument that it is still an elite conference.
The Rose Bowl is hallowed ground for the Big Ten, yet it had performed pitifully here in recent years. The league had won just one Rose Bowl since 2000, and was just 3-8 in BCS bowl games since 2005. And the league’s overall weakness this season made it impossible to consider a one-loss champion for the national title game over a one-loss champ from the SEC.
But after rallying from a 10-0 deficit here and dominating the last three quarters of the game, Michigan State made a statement for itself and its downtrodden conference brethren.
After giving up 146 yards in that opening quarter, the Spartans’ vaunted defense largely locked up Stanford for the rest of the game. They pummeled bellcow running back Tyler Gaffney, and the Cardinal seemed out of options after that other than a couple of downfield throws by quarterback Kevin Hogan.
“It's a nine-man front,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “There's a whole bunch of guys in there.”
A nine-man front on the nation’s No. 2 defense wasn’t enough to dissuade Stanford from its usual gameplan. The Cardinal (11-3) was as flexible as a wooden plank.
Stanford had grown so accustomed to dictating terms with its ground-and-pound running game that the Cardinal was virtually helpless when Michigan State shut it down. The playcalling was dreadfully conservative, to the very end.
Trailing 24-20 and getting the ball 75 yards away with three minutes left, Stanford’s last possession was a futile microcosm of its game-long approach: quarterback run for four yards, swing pass for four more, Gaffney up the middle for one, and then fullback Ryan Hewitt was stuffed on fourth-and-one.
There was some poetry to that last play. The lead tackler for Michigan State was linebacker Kyler Ellsworth, who flew over the pile to smash Hewitt in his tracks. Ellsworth was the stopgap starter after the Spartans’ star linebacker, Max Bullough, was stunningly dismissed from the team for undisclosed disciplinary reasons in the lead-up to this game.
“Kyler Elsworth got a chance to make a play, makes the play of the game,” Dantonio said.
That storyline got the media palpitating over the obvious story angle, but let’s be honest: at the glacial rate Stanford was going, there was no way the Cardinal was going to finish that drive in the end zone. Not unless the game lasted another month. Stanford already had expended 1:21 nudging the ball nine yards downfield.
Michigan State simply was the better team in this Rose Bowl. And damn near the best team in this 2013 season.
Now a can't-do program that had no business aspiring to a national title for nearly 50 years can do so again. The improbable dream may actually be within reach in 2014.