Sustained success next step for Spartans

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- They'll never forget "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap" around here.

They'll never forget the team-record 8-0 start or the team-record 11 wins. They'll never forget the way Michigan State endured after coach Mark Dantonio's heart attack, or the way a program known for crumbling in the face of adversity repeatedly overcame it.

Sure, Michigan State's storybook season had a very crummy ending. The Capital One Bowl loss showed that the Spartans haven't arrived. Not even close.

But the Big Ten championship banner unveiled a week ago at the Skandalaris Football Center is never coming down.

Michigan State made history in 2010. The Spartans now face a bigger challenge: repeating history.

"I was told in the winter by our strength coach [Ken Mannie] that this program hasn't [had] back-to-back eight-win seasons in a long time," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "To have sustained, continued success is something this program has been lacking. There have been good years and there's been great tradition, but to do it year in and year out really hasn't been there for a long time.

"We need to change that."

To specify the stat Mannie told Cousins, the Spartans haven't recorded consecutive seasons of eight wins or more since 1989 and 1990. The latter year saw Michigan State's most recent Big Ten championship until last season.

After the 1990 title, the program had moments when it seemed poised to turn the corner. The Spartans went 10-2 in 1999 but lost coach Nick Saban to LSU before the Citrus Bowl and went 5-6 the next season. There were the quick-starting, fast-fading seasons under John L. Smith that drove Spartans fans nuts.

In Dantonio's second year, Michigan State won nine games and had a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title on the final regular-season Saturday. The Spartans followed with a disappointing season both on and off the field in 2009.

They once again have reached the doorstep of the Big Ten penthouse.

Dantonio has taken the team to bowls in each of his first four seasons as coach. He and his staff have upgraded Michigan State's recruiting efforts, especially in the region. The Spartans have beaten every Big Ten squad except Ohio State (and Nebraska) at least once in the past three seasons. They've recorded three consecutive wins against archrival Michigan for the first time since 1965-67.

And while several key players depart, Michigan State returns a nice nucleus led by Cousins.

"There's a lot to play for," Dantonio said. "We certainly have come a long way in four years from where the perception of this program was. OK, with that being said, it's a process. We're not there yet."

The bowl game reinforced Dantonio's last point. Although Michigan State ended the regular season with a strong case to earn a BCS berth, the Spartans were anything but elite against Alabama.

The Tide surged to a 28-0 halftime lead and scored the first 49 points, pulling its starters midway through the third quarter. Alabama held significant edges in yards (546-171) and first downs (25-12) in a thoroughly dominating win.

If the Spartans aren't motivated by their quest for sustained success, the bowl game should do the trick.

"Our group felt embarrassed," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "Their pride certainly was hurt. We all were [hurt]. The guys moved beyond that and they're working very hard."

Dantonio admits there was a "sense of denial" after the bowl loss.

"Players didn't want to believe, and coaches, we didn't want to believe that we were that far away," Dantonio said. "And I don't think we were. It was a combination of us not playing well and Alabama being very good on that particular day.

"But the wins and the losses, the good things that happened, how you play in certain games, that exists. That's real."

Although Michigan State must replace standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, two starters in the secondary and three starters along the offensive line, Dantonio believes he has a better team than the 2010 version.

Cousins will be entering his third season as a starter. The Spartans are restocked at running back, receiver and tight end. The coaches see improved depth at defensive line and boast promising young defenders like linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, end William Gholston and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

Dantonio also is a realist. Michigan State didn't blow out many teams in 2010. If Notre Dame and Northwestern didn't bite on "Little Giants" and "Mousetrap," respectively, the Spartans wouldn't have had such a special season.

The schedule becomes much tougher this fall. Michigan State visits Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern in Big Ten play, in addition to a Week 3 trip to South Bend.

"A storybook season [in 2010]," Roushar said. "Does everything go right this year to give you that? We go to Nebraska, we go to Columbus. It's a different challenge now."

And a challenge players are willing to accept.

"Most teams' downfall is they have a good year, they feel complacent and they feel comfortable," junior running back Edwin Baker said. "Coach D is always preaching about not getting complacent, not getting comfortable."

Dantonio often has talked about measuring up. To call itself elite, Michigan State must measure up to top elite programs like Ohio State and Alabama.

The Spartans also must measure up season to season. They have the chance in 2011.

"It would tell you about where we are," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "We're not a flash in the pan. We're right there as an elite football team in the Big Ten Conference. It's not going to be up and down, it's not going to be like a yo-yo.

"It's going to be every day, every week, every year."