By JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — So close.
If Michigan State had pulled out a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game earlier this month, Traverse City would have had two representatives in the upcoming Rose Bowl.
Oregon, with Traverse City West freshman offensive tackle Jake Fisher, and the Spartans, with St. Francis linebacker Max Bullough.
Fisher will be in Pasadena, but the Ducks will be taking on Wisconsin, not Michigan State.
Bullough, Michigan State's leading tackler, and the Spartans face Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
The play of Bullough and Fisher is the Record-Eagle's No. 3 local sports story of 2011.
Bullough, starting at the same middle linebacking position that his father Shane and uncle Chuck played at MSU, led a Spartans defense that ranked among the nation's best. He was named second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches.
Bullough, a sophomore, and another newcomer, Denicos Allen, joined holdover Chris Norman in the lineup and the trio became the backbone of the defense. Bullough replaced Greg Jones, the school's third all-time leading tackler, while Allen took over for former Traverse City West alum Eric Gordon, who was a four-year starter.
"You know, if I said far exceeded, that means I had no confidence in what they could do," Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said at an Outback Bowl news conference. "As a matter of fact, Max Bullough after a press conference in the summer looked at me like I was crazy when I said I don't know, he's got big shoes to fill, we'll find out probably can't do it as well as Greg Jones did. He looked at me like, are you nuts, I can do it better.
"Our kids had confidence at linebacker, really at every position, but Max especially is one of those guys that looked at me like I can do this, coach, don't worry about me."
Bullough, who has 86 tackles and is responsible for setting the defense, primarily played special teams as a freshman.
"I think we exceeded what people thought we could accomplish as linebackers this year," Bullough said. "We had the confidence going in, we knew we had the talent, we knew we had the players. It was about getting the experience, giving us a chance to get the experience. We hadn't done it, we hadn't played in the games, and everyone said we can't do this we can't do that. Well, let us play in the game and let us show you what we can do. I think we've proven that."
Michigan State will be looking for its first bowl win in five seasons under Mark Dantonio.
"It's a challenge for us, and it's obviously a great team we're playing in Georgia,"Bullough said. "So it would be rewarding to win a bowl game, but also rewarding in itself if we can beat a team like Georgia."
Fisher, a true freshman, was put into the fire right away when Oregon opened its season against LSU in a nationally televised game between top 5 heavyweights before 87,711 spectators.
Fisher didn't find out until that day that he would be playing.
"It was all the way until game day," Fisher said. "Coach plays whoever he thinks he can trust out there."
Fisher originally committed to play at Michigan, but when the Wolverines fired head coach Rich Rodriguez and the spread offense appeared on its way out in Ann Arbor, Fisher began to rethink things.
"It was pretty much a mess for my life," Fisher said. "I was pretty confused. It kinds of makes you see things differently."
At 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, Fisher's a perfect fit for the spread offense. After be backed off his Michigan commitment, it didn't take long at all that other big-name programs came calling. Florida, Michigan State, Oregon, many others. He picked the Ducks.
I was a pretty athletic kid," Fisher said. "I didn't want to get stuck in a different situation. I wanted to make the most of my talents."
Once in Eugene, it didn't take Fisher long to make an impact. He became the first true freshman lineman to play for Oregon since 2007.
"We were excited about Jake, as well as all the freshmen, but I think he was physically more ready to play than the rest of them," Ducks offensive line coach Steve Greatwood said at the time. "Jake's got a tremendous amount of explosion to him."
Fisher has been a regular on the Ducks' offensive line, appearing in Oregon's rotation in every game.