EAST LANSING - A win over TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would enhance the legacy of Michigan State's senior class.
It would also give the Spartan program much-needed momentum heading into the off-season.
" We're are going to live on this game for the next eight months, there's no question about that," Dantonio said. "We saw how it went last year with the Outback Bowl, we also have seen how it's gone in the past when we haven't done so well in the Bowl game."
Michigan State took a step backward with its 6-6 record in 2012 after securing back-to-back 11-win in 2010 and 2011. But Dantonio believes his team's New Year's Day win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl fueled growth within the Spartan program.
"Six years ago we hadn't been to a Bowl in four years, I think," Dantonio said. "Now this is our sixth. So any way you cut it, we're building a strong foundation of who we are and what we're trying to do. And the game hangs on inches, I've always said that, and sometimes the inches didn't go our way this year. But regardless of that, we were resilient and kept battling, and those are the things that are important to me."
Growth, Dantonio believes, doesn't always show up in a team's overall record.
"And you see our program grow. Because you don't win every single football game does not mean your program is not growing; it doesn't mean it doesn't have growth. And our football team is growing and continuing to have high expectations."
Dantonio is encouraged by the strides the program's underclassmen have taken during bowl practice.
Freshman safety Demetrious Cox and redshirt freshman Lawrence Thomas have caught their coach's eye. "Demetrious Cox has been extremely impressive this Bowl practice, as some others have," said Dantonio.
Thomas has split time between fullback and defensive tackle. The converted linebacker will likely move to defense fulltime in the spring. Dantonio expects the former high school All-American to see time on both sides of the ball against TCU.
Thomas has taken more reps on the D-line than at fullback during bowl practice.
"We felt like we needed to get him up to speed offensively throughout the season, and now this is an opportunity to take that defensive aspect and put it into use," Dantonio said. "But he's got quick feet, he's powerful, he's 290 pounds, he's got great feet, he's got great balance, he shoots his hands. The thing that you have is a guy remember he's a guy that was recruited here as a linebacker so you've got a guy that can run like a linebacker playing up front for us. He is play defensive end, he can play defensive tackle different type situations, as well, so I think he's a guy that can do a lot of different things for us. He's going to be a great player for us in the future, and it's our intent right now to use him at the defensive line position, but also because of his background now having played fullback for pretty much 10 games, he's got that ability to adapt and be able to play in and out of that position, as well."
Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook, and Tyler O'Connor have benefited from Dantonio's decision to allow defenders to hit quarterbacks during certain practice periods this December.
"Well, we try to do basically drills as much as anything where they were going to get more than one rep," Dantonio said. "That's all of our players. I think it's important that we hang onto the football. I also think it's important that we try and rip the football out. Those are two things that you have to do offensively and defensively. We sort of constructed drills relative to that, whether it was with our quarterbacks or tailbacks or wide outs and went live on them, and there's a little bit of a Catch 22 on that because you're a little bit nervous when you have to work like that.
"But we made it through, and we held our breath a little bit. We made it through, but they were impressive running the football, both he, Cook and Tyler O'Connor, they were all very impressive running the football. They're all 215 pounds or more, and they've all got good athletic ability, it's just a matter of them putting that at game speed."
Dantonio is encouraged by the health of his football team.
"I think our players are in great condition," said Dantonio. "Injuries are at a minimum, and we should have everybody back at game time, so if we do have a guy nicked up I thought our guys have handled practice very well. We got through exams. I think our cumulative grade point average is as high as it's ever been as a football group, so that's promising for us, and we're excited to play. So we'll bring everybody down with us and we're at full tilt."
Click below for portions of Dantonio's Thursday press conference.