2011 Season Wrap-up: Validation and the taste of roses
The results are in and the votes have been counted.
The coaches voted Michigan State at the No. 10 spot in their final poll. The sports writers put the Spartans in the 11th slot in the end-of-season ballot.
Heck, the ESPN Big Ten blog placed MSU in the top spot in its final conference power rankings.
But 2011 was a season of so much more than the numbers — it was about the hunger that fueled the Spartans to such levels. It was about the desire to put roses between their teeth and really get a taste of the roses.
Following a BCS snub in 2010, the Spartans took it on and used it only to make them stronger and drive them. And as the 11-2 Big Ten Championship season in 2010 was the realization of success, 2011 became the validation of the success at Michigan State.
Validation in the form of a Legends Division Championship and an Outback Bowl. And what validation it was.
A defining characteristic of a great team is one that wins all the games it is supposed to, and most of the ones it is not expected to win. This team did that. It was favored to win only seven of its games — and it won 11, going 4-3 in ones it was pegged as the underdog.
Maybe that’s because they never once viewed themselves as the underdog — they expect to win.
They certainly expect to beat Michigan, and they did so again in a 28-14 win in convincing fashion.
No player on the current MSU roster has experienced a loss at the hands of in-state rival Michigan. The seniors leave without having lost to the Wolverines — a spotless 4-0 record.
So for that program down the road that pretends Michigan State cannot exist on their level, well, right now they wish we didn’t exist because they haven’t been able to win in four years.
This time, it was at the hands of the fearsome Spartan defense and its “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” as Pat Narduzzi so proudly worded it. The defense recorded seven sacks, a week after tallying nine as they won against Ohio State for the first time this millennium.
And just as we have come to expect the memorable, the Spartans have a penchant for the dramatic.
Following up Little Giants, the play of the year in college football in 2010, there was the magic of Rocket. Keith Nichol and his round-a-bout journey to wide receiver at MSU were cemented in Spartan lore as he hauled in a Hail Mary and used every ounce of strength to muscle into the end zone.
It likely was the highlight of the 2011 season in college football, in what most people would call the game of the year.
But right up there is the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. Kirk Cousins played like a man possessed by the most supreme confidence one can hold as he dissected the Badgers. So often criticized as a player who couldn’t show up for the big games on the biggest stage, he tore apart the Wisconsin defense for the second time this season and connected with B.J. Cunningham on three touchdown passes.
Then, in his final game as a Spartan, Cousins drove down the field against Georgia in the Outback Bowl on a game-tying two-minute drill. They overcame the disappointment of missing out on the Rose Bowl after a few missed opportunities against Wisconsin and an inopportune penalty to knock off the Bulldogs and finally get a bowl win in another dramatic win.
The triple overtime victory finally sealed when Anthony Rashad White blocked a field-goal attempt in the third overtime.
“Sparty on! Michigan State sends its senior class out with a bowl win!” will forever give me chills.
Wrapping up the season with a second consecutive 11-win season, a 22-5 record in the past two, and giving the seniors 37 wins in their four-year career — one of many records they set.
Cousins established himself on top of almost every passing category in Michigan State history, while Cunningham took over most major receiving record. Joel Foreman sits in a tie atop the list of most career starts.
They rewrote the history books through their hunger for more and their work to bring the Michigan State program out of the depths of the John L. Smith era.
This chapter of Michigan State football history brought back the legitimacy of a once-proud program, and restored it to its former self. It restored the reality of the Rose Bowl within its reach. It came close twice — very, very close twice — because of the desire of every individual to put a rose between their teeth.
I would dare to say we won’t see a team quite like this one at Michigan State again. We will see the talent. We will see the success. But there is something extra and special about the team that breaks through and validates a program.
It takes hold of the hearts of fans and it remains in memories always because it grips in ways that cannot be forgotten.
For the seniors who graduated, this season was the cap on a truly remarkable four or five years. Their heart, grit, and determination will linger long after they are gone because it is instilled in the underclassmen.
They leave a legacy of winning and seeing things through behind. They set the bar high and they achieved so much.
For the underclassmen who will be the foundation of the program moving forward, it gives them the motivation to move forward. They hunger for more validation and more success — and they expect to get there.
The taste of roses will leave them with an insatiable desire to do everything in their power to reach Pasadena.
They will taste the roses.
(Editor’s Note: I would love any input on what this season meant to any of you. If you want to comment with what it means, I will combine all of those and some tweets I have received into a post with those responses.)