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National Title The Next Goal At Michigan State

NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer

DETROIT (AP) — Michigan State wrapped up the Rose Bowl in fitting fashion — with brute force on defense.

Now the Spartans have only one real goal left: Can they win the national championship?

"That's our plan," coach Mark Dantonio said. "You have to dream big."

The 2013 season felt like a dream for Dantonio and his team, especially the last couple months. From the moment Michigan State pounded rival Michigan in early November to emerge as serious contenders for the Big Ten title, the Spartans turned back every challenge in their own bruising style.

Go unbeaten in conference play during the regular season? Check.

Beat Ohio State in the Big Ten title game to earn a spot in their first Rose Bowl since 1988? Check.

Then Michigan State edged Stanford 24-20 on Wednesday, stuffing the Cardinal on fourth-and-short near midfield in the final minutes to put the game away. The Rose Bowl victory means the fourth-ranked Spartans may be ranked even higher to end the season after about a quarter-century of frustration and untapped potential.

If any team had an excuse for a bowl letdown it was Michigan State. The Spartans had already accomplished so much just by making it to the Rose Bowl — then they lost star linebacker Max Bullough to a suspension.

It was Kyler Elsworth, a fifth-year senior filling in for Bullough, who flung himself over the pile on that key fourth-down stop against Stanford.

"The situation with Max, when we first heard of it, I wasn't too worried because I know Kyler Elsworth," linebacker Denicos Allen said. "Just to play with the guys I played with on defense, to play with them for a senior year and to play the way we did, it was just a journey well worth it."

After back-to-back 11-win campaigns, Michigan State went 7-6 last season. Then the Spartans lost running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive lineman William Gholston early to the NFL.

At the beginning of the season, the Spartans looked like just another Big Ten team. Michigan State's defense was ranked No. 1 in the country, and the offense improved consistently after a slow start. With major uncertainty at quarterback, it was unproven Connor Cook who eventually won the job.

Cook, a sophomore, ended up throwing for 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

"We've always believed in ourselves, no matter what the situation is," Cook said. "Our defense, they have been doing their thing the entire year. They've been shutting out our opponents and then our offense has really stepped up and become a lot more balanced in the pass game and run game."

Cook has every reason to feel confident heading into next season, but Michigan State will have to replace three senior starters on the offensive line. The Spartans also lose Bullough, Allen and defensive backs Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis from that terrific defense.

"After this year, obviously, the expectations are sky high. I think we'll have to realize that," Cook said. "Guys have to step up every single year. Seniors graduate, underclassmen have to step up. I think the main thing we have to be is so hungry and realize that together we can accomplish anything."

Dantonio said after the Rose Bowl he intends to be back at Michigan State. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is certainly a candidate to leave for a head coaching job, but he hasn't done so yet.

If Michigan State's staff does return intact, this should remain a program to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.

"People keep asking me, 'Does the championship feel better?' — all these different things, these levels of excitement," Dantonio said. "It's sort of living a dream."

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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