Minnesota-Michigan St. Preview
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)
Mark Dantonio is ready to fight for Michigan State.
When asked about having to campaign for his No. 11 Spartans (10-1, 7-0 Big Ten) to earn a BCS berth if they don't reach the Rose Bowl by beating No. 3 Ohio State on Dec. 7 in the conference title game, Dantonio talked about a 3-1 record in his team's last four games against Wisconsin and a one-point loss to OSU last year. That is the closest scare the Buckeyes have had in two unbeaten seasons.
"Oh, yeah, I'll campaign," Dantonio said when reminded that his Legends Division champs were jumped by Michigan for a Sugar Bowl berth in 2011 when the Spartans lost 42-39 to the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game.
"We've beaten Wisconsin three out of the last four years. You can start with that. But we'll worry about that later. We're not going to worry about that now. Our focus has to be on Minnesota."
The Spartans are No. 1 in the Big Ten in 15 team statistical categories, led by the winningest class in school history. With 39 victories and three more opportunities, Dantonio said the focus this week will be on an appropriate Senior Day sendoff against the surprising Golden Gophers (8-3, 4-3) on Saturday.
Eighteen Michigan State players will be making their final home appearance. The group, led by linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and cornerback Darqueze Dennard, are part of three double-digit win seasons, including 11-win campaigns in 2010-11.
"I want to congratulate our football team in that regard and congratulate Darqueze Dennard in being one of the three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award," Dantonio said of a trophy given to the nation's top defensive back. "There always has to be a reason to play. There always has to be a cause. And this is an opportunity to win 11 football games and go 8-0 in the conference."
The Spartans have never been better than 7-0 in the Big Ten, their record in the back-to-back glory years of 1965-66 when they were a combined 19-1-1 overall.
This year, Michigan State will again ride an improving offense and the nation's best defense in a bid to return to Pasadena, Calif., for the first time in 26 seasons and just the fifth time in 100 Rose Bowls. The Spartans thought they could do that two years ago, only to lose to Wisconsin in a back-and-forth game in the final minutes.
For those who think Michigan State missed its best opportunity to return to that game, Dantonio wasn't about to concede anything to OSU or any other opponent. The Spartans have beaten four of the five Big Ten opponents they lost to by a combined 13 points in 2012. The only score that hasn't been settled is with the Buckeyes.
"I had no doubt that we'd bounce back," Dantonio said of a 12-1 record since this time a year ago. "I said a long time ago that this would be a special football team. Those were my expectations."
Michigan State began the season unranked, sputtered in September and lost a game it easily could have won at Notre Dame before growing into a complete team. Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford have answered a lot of questions, with a few remaining in terms of conference supremacy.
"The next thing you have to ask yourself is are the two best teams playing for the championship? I think they are," Dantonio said.
"I can also tell you this: We lost by one point to Ohio State last year. One. So we'll be ready to play."
First up is Minnesota, which had its second four-game win streak this season snapped with a 20-7 home loss to then-No. 16 Wisconsin last Saturday.
Aaron Hill returned an interception for a touchdown and David Cobb rushed for 68 yards for the Gophers, but Philip Nelson completed just 7 of 23 passes for 83 yards and Minnesota couldn't get anything going offensively in tying a season low for points while managing 185 total yards.
Coach Jerry Kill was quick to say that there are no moral victories, but he was clearly proud of how his young team performed.
"I can live with a lot of things when you play your butt off," Kill said.
Michigan State has won three straight in this series, but Dantonio isn't taking the Golden Gophers lightly.
"I think the big thing about Minnesota right now, they understand what it takes to win; they have won," he said. "I think they have great direction from coach Kill and the rest of his coaching staff. But I just think that they are playing very confident."