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July 24, 2013

Inside the rivalry: MSU is "chasing excellence"

It's a stat that every Michigan State football fan can't help but remember but would love to forget: five losses by a combined 13 points in 2012.

The Spartans were edged by Ohio State, 17-16, Iowa, 19-16, Michigan, 12-10, Nebraska, 28-24 and Northwestern, 23-20 - five games that could have gone one way or the other, ultimately pulling them from two-straight 11-win seasons to a 7-6 finish last year.

"We had nine close games that went down to the last series," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said at Big Ten Media Day. "We won four of them, and we lost five. Our football team has been resilient. The one thing you can say about us is we're going to come to play every game. We'll be motivated and ready to play.

"I think it creates an edge for us. It makes people realize that six-inch step really is just that. It's an inch, but we lost by inches. You have to take that step, you have to do the little things. The whole game centers around the little things that must be done to be successful. Those things are important for us to be successful."

The Spartans are aiming to reclaim those inches in 2013 - and they're setting their sights high.

This offseason, Dantonio has spoken to his team about "chasing it." And by "it," he means, "excellence."

"That is what I have been thinking about all summer," Dantonio said. "That's what we have to talk about. That's what we're doing; we're chasing excellence. We're chasing a dream, that particular dream, the Rose Bowl. It's not going to be handed to us - we have to catch it."

"Chasing excellence means going out there - whether it s workout, a practice or a game - and doing things to the best of your ability," senior linebacker Max Bullough added. "It's a double-sided thing, because you want to be excellent, so you can achieve excellence, which is the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl. If you're able to conduct yourself in that way, then excellence is the end result.

"You go back to last year, we lose five games by a total of 13 points. No one would argue that we're not close. We won those games the previous two years. Now, it's getting back and closing those out, stop that team at the end or holding the ball for a couple more downs. We're right there."

And one game, in particular, is on the Spartans' mind.

"Of course, we have the Michigan game circled," cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "I'm very excited. We're trying to get - excuse me - we're not trying to get, we are going to get Paul Bunyan back in East Lansing."

Of course, that is easier said than done, and Michigan State must address some concerns before chasing the ultimate goal, the most pressing of which is probably the running back position.

Le'Veon Bell declared for the NFL Draft a season early, after compiling 382 carries for 1,740 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2012.

That leaves a big hole in the Spartans' offensive production - one that will likely be filled by committee.

Junior Nick Hill is the leading returning rusher from last season; he rushed 21 times for 48 yards and a score in 2012.

"I don't know if you totally replace a Le'Veon Bell, because he does so many things that other people don't see," Dantonio said. "He's a great blocker, a great running back. He has great vision and balance. All that was an accumulation of experiences. When he came as a true freshman, he played and had an impact on our football team. That's what we're looking for our young players to do. When it was Edwin Baker, LeVeon and Larry Caper in 2010, we were very successful.

"We'll have to do this as a group. I'm very excited about our group. We have some talented guys, very talented freshmen guys, big-bodied guys who are 220-plus. [Redshirt freshman] Riley Bullough is a big guy. We have speed guys like Nick Hill, [junior Jeremy] Langford, [redshirt freshman Nick] Tompkins, [freshman R.J.] Shelton. The big guys are [freshman] Delton Williams, Riley Bullough and a few more."

At the quarterback position, senior Andrew Maxwell returns after struggling at times as a first-year starter in 2012.

Maxwell was pulled for redshirt sophomore Connor Cook during the Spartans' late-game rally against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last year.

But Dantonio likes what he has seen from Maxwell.

"Quarterback is about decision-making," Dantonio said. "You have to make great decisions. Experience has a lot to do with that. The next thing you have to do as a quarterback is create when things break down. Sometimes, you have to create. It will be an interesting August for everyone. Andrew goes in as the No. 1 quarterback. He's extremely confident, and he has great leadership skills. He has a lot of what Kirk Cousins has, in terms of his off-field mentality. That's a positive thing, and he's ready to go. Our other guys are ready to go.

"We are trying to press buttons that create anxiety, for the quarterbacks. I want to see how they play with a lot of anxiety. Because that's what this game is, especially at that position. When you get to game day, there is going to be anxiety. We're trying to create that as much as possible in practice, with different ways and situations."

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