Critics contend that lower-tier bowl games such as the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl are meaningless. On MSU: "Michigan State likes to make it a low-scoring game and win with their defense."
For the national picture, perhaps that's true. But on a local scale,
Mark Dantonio believes there is plenty riding on Saturday's
game against TCU, for his team and his program.
"It's going to make us or break us," Dantonio said, after the Spartans arrived in Arizona earlier this week. "It's going to make the difference between a winning team and a losing team. We have to be realistic about that aspect of it and deal with it."
Michigan State (6-6) needs a victory in order to achieve the program's second-straight bowl win, and also Dantonio's fifth winning season in six years.
A loss, and it would mark the Spartans' second losing season of the Dantonio era. The Spartans have plenty to play for.
"I've always tried to just deal with the consequences with where we're at and that's where we're at," Dantonio said. "Winning is at the forefront of what we want to do here, and that has been emphasized quite often here as of late."
Focusing On Gameweek
The Spartans returned to the practice field at full go on Tuesday, holiday or not. They are within four days of gameday and are in game-week mode.
"We are right no schedule," Dantonio said. "We gave our guys three days off to come back (on Dec. 24) and do a little something out at the practice facility on the first day back and then we got right into Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Our walk-through is on Friday and then we play the game on Saturday.
"It's as much like a game week for us as we can possibly make it in a bowl situation. With that going on, there's a lot of stuff that they will be excited to see here. There's a lot of things our players have not seen before, like the mountains. There's a lot of different things they are going to experience out here. We want them to have a great time but our focus will be on our challenge."
Challenge for TCU ,Too
TCU (7-5) has been trying to prove all year, in their first season in the Big 12 after a string of double-digit win seasons, that they can compete and prosper at the major conference level. The Horned Frogs have been younger this year than in previous seasons under coach Gary Patterson, and the struggle to replace star quarterback Casey Pachall after a 4-0 start due to off-field problems led to an uncharacteristic downturn in the wins column for TCU.
Patterson the Frogs are eager to prove that the five-loss season was due to isolated circumstances in 2012 and not the result of being over-matched by a big boy schedule.
All of TCU's losses have come to bowl teams. The ugliest of the losses was a 37-23 loss at Iowa State in a game that was played just two days after freshman Trevone Boykin learned that he was going to be pressed into replacing Pachall at quarterback. Boykin threw for 270 yards that day, but was intercepted three times. TCU's offense has been decidedly more careful since then, and intermittently successful.
Since the Iowa State game, TCU has scored 49, 39 and 20 points in victories over Baylor, West Virginia and Texas - each of which came on the road.
Although TCU is a program that is accustomed to winning, there is no shame in losses to Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Oklahoma.
Kansas State was 10-0 and in the hunt for the National Championship when the Wildcats eked out a 23-10 victory over TCU whie posting only 12 first downs against the Horned Frogs defense.
In the last game of the regular season, TCU was turned away deep in the Oklahoma red zone in the final seconds while trailing 24-17. An apparent game-tying TD on a quarterback draw a short while earlier was negated by a late penalty flag for holding as Boykin accelerated into the open.
TCU spent most of the last decade trying to prove itself against major-conference opponents, and only occasionally get a chance to do so - such as their victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, wrapping up a 13-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking. Most other bowl wins in the Patterson era have been against mid-major opponents.
Getting a chance to step outside of the Big 12 and knock heads with a Big Ten foe is chance for the TCU program to earn more stripes in its return to the major conference stage.
"For us, this is not just a game that marks the end of the season and a chance to play in a great bowl game," Patterson said. "I think you will be excited about the guys we have running around and doing some things.
"If you don't know very much about us, we played 17 true freshmen this season. Probably 80 percent of our team is below a sophomore level. We have only one senior on our whole football team on defense."
TCU and Michigan State have been two of the better defenses in the country in recent years. MSU finished a Top 10 defense this year, and TCU's defense is ranked in the Top 20 in total defense. Both head coaches specialize on the defensive side of the ball, with Dantonio formerly having been defensive coordinator for Jim Tressel at Ohio State whereas Patterson was d-coordinator for Dennis Franchione at TCU as the Horned Frogs began their resurgence at the beginning of the 2000s.
This year, Patterson and Dantonio each fielded good defenses again, despite each team's youth. TCU starts only one senior on defense, middle linebacker Kenny Cain whereas Michigan State is normally starts only two seniors in cornerback Johnny Adams and defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White.
TCU and Michigan State led their respective conferences in total defense. TCU has done it with two excellent, pass-rushing defensive ends, sturdy defensive tackles, and a 4-2-5 defense which stops the run with quickness to the ball yet has stifled passing attacks by ranking among the Top 10 in the country in forcing interceptions.
TCU's defensive front will probably more closely resemble a standard 4-3 than what the Horned Frogs normally field against the pass-happy spread teams of the Big 12. The seventh man in the box against two-back offenses, No. 17 Sam Carter, might be listed as a "safety," but at 6-1, 220, he has plenty of size and punch to play at the linebacker level against a pro style, two-back offense such as Michigan State's.
"It's a different style, but we have a lot of great skill players," Patterson said. "This is a great challenge for us. We know the kind of game and the kind of defense that Michigan State has, and to win this ball game you have to be the best defense on the field. Probably, I would say you have a chance for it to be more like 16-13.
"But this is one of those games where you never know. I will give you a great example: We are playing Texas Tech and they had less than 200 yards going into the fourth quarter, and it ends up a triple-overtime game, and 56-53. So welcome to my world. You have this kind of game on Saturday night and I will promise you that they'll all leave talking about it."
4-2-5 vs Heavy Bunch
Michigan State had tremendous success on the ground in its most recent game, a victory at Minnesota, by occasionally using a personnel group which included 285-pound Dion Sims and 300-pound Mike Dennis at tight ends in a bunch set with 290-pound fullback Lawrence Thomas.
It will be interesting to see if TCU remains with 4-2-5 personnel against that type of size. If so, TCU will undoubtedly have to compress their safeties down near the linebacker level.
"Michigan State likes to force you to make mistakes, play action and get big plays off with their big group when they have two tight ends and two backs," Patterson said. "You are playing the run and everybody is up and then they play action and try to throw it over your head. We've had to work very hard to make sure that didn't happen, at least not in practice. We'll see here in a couple of days if we got done what we needed to get done."
When asked if he believes the team with the better defense will win on Saturday, Dantonio said: "That usually has a little something to do with it. I think both teams have outstanding defenses. Coach Patterson is known as a defensive-minded coach. I think at the same time, it's going to be the football team that doesn't make mistakes on the offensive side of the ball. If you don't turn the ball over, if you can stay balanced, if you can run the ball some and throw it effectively, that's all going to enter into it.
"I also think that special teams plays a huge, huge part in bowl games because of the layoff. When you start preparing, you have to be on. You can't make mistakes."
On TCU freshman d-end Devonte Fields, who led the Big 12 in sacks and was first-team all-conference: "Obviously, he is very athletic. The other thing is that he is a very smart football player and he has a tough mom. She is always following up and making him do the right things. He stayed close to home. He could've gone anywhere in the country and he's really stepped in."
Fields will match up against MSU left tackle Dan France, a junior whose pass protection has been spotty at times over the past two seasons.
On the season as a whole: "This senior class came into the season through their first three years at 36-3. They were a part of the Fiesta Bowl year when they were 12-1, and 13-0 in the Rose Bowl and then 11-2 and played in the Poinsettia Bowl before coming back this year to play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Obviously, losing was not something that was part of their makeup. They have fought through things that really helped us get to where we are right now
"When we had to deal with the situation with Casey Pachall and you're 4-0 and scoring 45 points a game and doing the things you need to do and then you have to make a decision for a young man's life and now will we win eight more games and how do we do it? We've fought our way through everything because we basically were in every football game that we played this year. It's been a lot of fun. This is a great group of kids. Obviously if they weren't such a great group they wouldn't have fought through everything that they have gone through to get back to where we're at."
Subject matter: A coach was asked why his program has achieved consistent success.
Coach's Quote: "Our staff has been together for a long time. You haven't had a lot of turnover."
Who Said It? TCU caoch Gary Patterson (although this has been a favorite quote from Dantonio in the past two years, and it could just as easily have been the MSU head man talking).
The New Wrinkle Question
For the fourth time in the last four press conferences, an MSU coach was asked about new offensive wrinkles.
Dantonio's answer this time: "I think where you are at in a bowl game, you are always going to see some different things both offensively and defensively from everybody that you play. We will have to let that play out as we get to game day."
Dantonio on keeping momentum going from the end of the regular season:
"Our football team has always come to play and I think that's one thing that we've been able to do with the foundation of our program. Whether we've lost in the last second, which I think we did in four games, or won in the last second, we try to take the approach that every single game is a different chance to deal with the present. As long as you're dealing with the present and you're looking forward, that's all I can ask from our football team. We will come to play and represent."
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