NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — For Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, the Big Ten championship game was a fitting conclusion to a run hardly anyone saw coming.
“Nothing came easy throughout the season, and nothing came easy throughout the game,” Hollis said.
The Spartans won the Big Ten with a 34-24 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night, and now they’ll play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1988.
It’s the culmination of a seven-year rise under coach Mark Dantonio in which Michigan State went from national afterthought to the top of the conference.
The wait for that elusive Rose Bowl berth could have been a bit shorter.
Michigan State tied for the Big Ten title in 2010 with Ohio State and Wisconsin, but lost out on the trip west because of a tiebreaker based on BCS rankings.
Then there was the heartbreaking 2011 conference title game, when the Spartans lost in the final minutes to Wisconsin.
Ohio State came into Saturday’s game with a national title shot on the line — but Michigan State never seemed any less motivated.
The Buckeyes may have been eager to play for a national championship, regardless of the venue, but it’s hard to imagine that they would have appreciated a trip to Pasadena any more than the Spartans will.
“It’s going to be a special moment when we walk out on that field,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
“When you set down and write down your goals and think about the goals in whatever job that you take or occupation, you’re going to have some different things that you want to try to accomplish. That was one of the things we were trying to accomplish.”
The fourth-ranked Spartans will take on fifth-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Although its ranking is now high, there was almost no national title talk surrounding Michigan State this season.
Michigan State went 7-6 last season, and a few key players left early for the NFL draft.
The Spartans had four players in the mix at quarterback this September, and the results were somewhat predictable. The defense carried Michigan State, scoring four of the team’s first five touchdowns before Dantonio eventually settled on Connor Cook as his quarterback.
The Spartans looked nothing like a team that would roll through nine straight Big Ten games, winning each by double digits. But Cook and running back Jeremy Langford provided enough offense, and Michigan State remained dominant on the defensive side of the ball.
“Right now we have a Rose Bowl product, a Big Ten champion product, which is tremendous,” Dantonio said. “But the process to me is the enjoyment of coaching and that’s how I measure it.”
A 29-6 win over Michigan in early November helped the Spartans emerge as Legends Division champions, and not even Urban Meyer’s unbeaten Buckeyes could stop Michigan State last weekend.
Now, the trip to the Rose Bowl awaits, and it’ll be as anticipated as some of Michigan State’s other marquee sporting events in recent years.
“Football drives athletic programs,” Hollis said. “It’s going to be like a Final Four experience — times whatever number you want to put on it.”
There was an old-fashioned charm to Michigan State’s celebration after the Spartans won the Big Ten title. The last time Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl, there was no Bowl Championship Series. The goal of every Big Ten team was to make it to Pasadena — and the entire season was played with that objective in mind.
Perhaps at some point, the Spartans will compete for a national championship — if the four-team playoff started this season, they might very well have been included.
But in 2013, Michigan State finally earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, where the Big Ten champion will face the Pac-12 champion in a game both teams are thrilled to be a part of.
“To have a matchup where both teams earned their way in,” Hollis said. “I think it’s set up beautifully for the Rose Bowl.”
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