This week, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun will get his first chance to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to playing with hometown bragging rights on the line.
Sixty-three percent of the players listed on the Spartans’ roster grew up in Michigan or Ohio. Each year, those guys get a chance to take on friends from their old neighborhoods or youth league teams in annual battles against Michigan and Ohio State. The chance to beat your home state is one of the many motivational arrows head coach Mark Dantonio has stashed in the quiver that keeps his team feeling perpetually slighted.
“It's very, very special when you have an opportunity to play against your home state,” Dantonio said. “That’s important this week for Shilique.”
On Saturday, the junior pass-rushing terror from Middletown, New Jersey get his first swing against Rutgers, the Big Ten newcomers with a campus 30 minutes from where Calhoun grew up.
Calhoun passed on a Rutgers scholarship and the chance to play in front of his family on a regular basis when he chose to play for Dantonio in 2011. Rutgers was a Big East school at the time, and Calhoun had no expectations of squaring off with the Jersey-laden Scarlet Knights during his college career.
“It’s going to be a statement game for me on the reason why I chose to come here,” Calhoun said. “It’s one of those games. That state game is where you’re from. The Ohio guys have Ohio State. The Michigan guys have Michigan. Finally, we have our moment too.”
The 6-foot-5, 256-pound Calhoun has had his share of other notable moments in his three seasons on the field in East Lansing. He scored three touchdowns and racked up 7.5 sacks last season en route to being named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year. As a second-team All American, he was expected to be one of the most prolific pass rushers in the country this season and earn himself a big paycheck when he jumped to the NFL the following year.
The 2014 season didn’t start at same breakneck pace for Calhoun. After the buzz around him quieted in late September, he started to find his stride again. Heading into the final home game of the season, he is one sack shy of matching his 2013 total.
Dantonio and Calhoun’s teammates say the added pressure and national spotlight didn’t change the way the defense’s star prepared. The loss of several key starters, though, left Calhoun with the feeling that he needed to do more for his team than he had in the past.
“I was trying to do too much, do above my job,” he said. “I think that’s what really hurt me. Now I understand this is the system. This is why I’ve been successful, because I’m trying to fit into the system. It’s allowing not only myself, but my teammates to make plays. As the season progresses, it starts to get easier and easier for me.”
Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin, who has the pleasure of squaring off with Calhoun on a daily basis, said his practice adversary was trying to add a slew of new weapons to his pass-rushing repertoire at the start of the season. When he pared down the list of new tricks and got back to what he did best, Conklin noticed the difference.
The spotlight on Michigan State's team has faded, too, in the two weeks since their loss to divisional rival Ohio State. The Spartans dropped out of the race for a playoff spot and slipped below college football's national radar. Calhoun and the defense responded in their following game by holding Maryland to six rushing yards during a 37-15 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
The win squashed any theories that Michigan State’s motivation would peter away without the goal of playing for a national title hanging in front of it. Conklin said it took a few days for morale to return to the team after the loss to the Buckeyes. When they started hitting each other again, they decided they had plenty left to achieve.
“After everyone stepped back for a second and reevaluated, we realized, really, we’re not in a bad place,” Conklin said. “We didn’t do what we set out to do, but it’s not like we’re going to the Outback Bowl or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. We’re still going to a Rose Bowl-type of game, or we can. That’s still a great accomplishment.”
The Spartans(8-2) checked in at No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, leaving them in good position to earn a trip to one of the New Years Day bowls from the selection committee if they win their final two games of the season.
That begins Saturday against Rutgers in a big game for Calhoun. He said when he first learned that Rutgers was joining the conference this season, he hoped that the two teams would meet in New Jersey this season.
Michigan State will travel to Rutgers next season, but it isn’t clear if Calhoun will still be around to play in front of a home crowd. He remains one of the top pro prospects in the Big Ten and a potential early pick in this spring’s NFL draft. Many assume that this Saturday will be his final game at Spartan Stadium, but Calhoun cautioned that he hasn’t made a decision yet.
"You know what happens [when] you assume," he said. "I'm just going to leave it at that. We'll see what happens. Right now, I'm just excited about playing Rutgers this year."