November 16, 2012

Unique blend of seniors played vital role

EAST LANSING - Maybe one of the reasons Michigan State will go into its final home game of the season with a 2-4 record at home and just five overall wins instead of eight or nine victories is because they just didn't have enough.

No, not enough talent but just not enough of the experience, leadership and passion that a larger senior class can bring to a program when adversity strikes.

Last season's 11-win team captured the inaugural Legends Division title and ended MSU's bowl drought with an overtime victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.

Off of that 2011 team, 10 starters were lost. Eight of them were seniors on a Spartan team that boasted a senior class of 17, with as many as 12 playing integral roles.

The 2012 Spartans have lost four Big Ten games by a total of just 10 points and in retrospect, it looks like they may have needed more seniors with experience than just the 13 that will walk away from East Lansing at season's end, especially when you consider that only five of them provided major contributions, while three others contributed in complimentary roles.

The 2012 Spartans needed more of the durability and consistency of offensive guard Chris McDonald, more of the hard-hitting leadership and commitment of Johnny Adams in the secondary, more of the spiritual guidance and solid play of linebacker Chris Norman and more of the defensive line presence of nose tackle Anthony Rashad White.

Norman was one of the first high-profile recruits to sign with Dantonio's 2009 recruiting class, which is still Dantonio's highest-ranked class and a cornerstone class for the program.

While Norman's play was outstanding at times, MSU also needed more of the experience, attitude and versatility provided by departing performers like defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, offensive lineman Ethan Ruhland, running back Larry Caper, kicker Dan Conroy, linebacker Steve Gardiner, and defensive back Mitchell White.

But you can't just summon up a batch of experience and character for a whole team.

Despite dealing with the disappointment of a season that had much higher expectations, and also includes senior quarterback Peter Badovinac, fullback Jeff Bobek and nose tackle Doug Curtis, the 2012 class will walk away with a nice resume of accomplishments, No. 1 being, the second-most wins in the program's 116-yard history.

"We've got a number of guys making their last (appearance) here at Spartan Stadium and I think the feeling is they've accomplished a lot of things in the last three, four, five years,'' MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.

Entering Saturday's game against the Wildcats, this group is tied for second-most victories all-time with 33.

And many of the seniors that will take that final walk out of the tunnel have left indelible stamps on a program that has undergone a noteworthy culture change, including re-establishing the rivalry with Michigan in favor of MSU, and going to three straight bowl games. And if they can get just one more win in the last two games, they will join a special group of past Spartan seniors that have claimed four-straight bowl appearances during their stay in East Lansing.

"Both Chris Norman and Larry, (have been) valuable members of this football team. They've had great careers here,'' Dantonio said. "I think right now Norman's a little hampered injury wise (and) Larry hasn't been on the field as much right now, because of Le'Veon Bell's success, but I'll always remember Larry Caper for his freshman year, and what he's been able to do after. Sometimes it takes a big man to look at things and say, 'okay, I'm still part of this football team, I'm still successful, and I'm still a major contributor,' eventhough he might not get as much pub or as much ink as maybe he had when he was a true freshman and he was the guy. As far as with Chris, I still consider him a co-starter on this football team. He's a team captain. He's going to be a major contributor in terms of what goes on here in the next two games and where we're at in the whole process.''

Junior running Le'Veon Bell feels players like Caper defined this senior class for the way honored he carried himself because even when Caper's role diminished in MSU's offense, Bell said his backfield partner became even more of a leader by displaying the right attitude about his situation.

"He's an emotional leader. Eventhough he's not a starter or doesn't get as much playing time as he possibly could be, you could never tell he was down or was not in a good mood,'' Bell said. "He was always going out there and working hard and leading by example. I feel like if we had a lot more guys like that, we'd be (an even) better team than we are now.''

Special teams and linebackers coach Mike Tressel paid homage to Norman and Gardiner as he reflected back on their contributions to the program.

"Chris believed in Coach Dantonio and his vision, and me and my vision, so that makes him extra special. Now hopefully he feels a lot of pride in what has happened here,'' Tressel said. "Both (Norman and Gardiner) have added to a lot of wins here at Michigan State. So it's hard, there's no doubt about it. But we still have some season left and we choose not to think about it at this moment to be honest. If you think about it too much leading up to that day, it makes it harder but we'll miss Chris and Steve, (there's) no doubt about it."

So while this senior class may not have garnered the accolades of its predecessors, they will still be credited with having a huge influence on the push that made Dantonio's Spartan program relevant on a national stage.

Norman said, there is a specific way that he and his fellow seniors should be remembered once they take that jersey off for the final time, hopefully after not just a bowl game appearance but after a bowl game victory.

"I know what it feels like to go through adversity, I know what it feels like not to have everything go your way and I also know what it feels like to respond and stay committed and that's something I've been trying to relate to my team, young, old, whomever,'' Norman said. "That eventhough everything isn't going how you want it to right now, you still have no reason at all to let your foot off the gas pedal because in the end you just want to be remembered as someone who was willing to stick it out, no matter what.''

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