Michigan St.-Penn St. Preview
(AP) - Eliminated from Big Ten title contention, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday the Spartans still have plenty to play for.
The 10th-ranked Spartans travel to Penn State on Saturday looking to secure a fourth 10-win season in the last five years.
"We're a little bit of the forgotten ones right now," Dantonio said. "Got a very good football team, got a chance to win 10 football games. We need to take comfort in that and take comfort in the fact that we're going places. This program is strong and healthy."
Ohio State wrapped up the East Division title by beating Indiana over the weekend. Next up is a Nittany Lions team the Spartans (9-2, 6-1) haven't faced in four years. In the last meeting, in 2010, Michigan State captured a share of its first conference championship under Dantonio with a 28-22 win in the last game of the regular season at Beaver Stadium.
There was also a wrinkle on Tuesday's depth chart, with wide receiver Tony Lippett listed as a starting cornerback.
A fifth-year senior, Lippett is first in the Big Ten in touchdown receptions and yards per game. He began his career as a cornerback before moving to offense, and Dantonio used him at cornerback for several series during a 45-3 win over Rutgers last Saturday. He played well, tallying two pass breakups and one tackle, and Dantonio said he felt he could help the defense and help add to his NFL draft resume by playing cornerback for the first time since 2011.
"He was able to make that transition easily," Dantonio said. "I think he's a wide receiver at the next level, I just think this is an added dimension to him in terms of who he is from a toughness standpoint, from a competitive standpoint, and in an emergency situation."
Last Saturday marked a sense of completion for Lippett and fifth-year running backs Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill in their home finale. They teamed for five touchdowns, rushed for 185 yards and caught six balls for 88 yards.
With his 10th touchdown catch of the year, Lippett became the eighth receiver in school history to have a 1,000-yard season.
Langford boosted his 11-game totals to 1,242 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He extended his string of 100-yard days against conference opponents to 15 games, the longest against FBS league foes in 18 seasons.
But amid all the fun, there was a clear sense of purpose, as Michigan State beat seven-win Maryland and Rutgers by a combined score of 82-18 after a crushing loss to Ohio State.
"I think it's important that you try to move forward in the rankings," Dantonio said of his team's bowl aspirations. "If you win, good things happen. If you do that, things will take care of themselves. We have a great challenge going to State College to play Penn State. It is a tough place to play but an enjoyable place with a good crowd. We will take it there and try to get to win number 10."
Penn State (6-5, 2-5) certainly won't get there amid a disappointing run through conference play after opening 4-0. The low point may have been last Saturday's 16-14 road loss to an Illinois team which entered 1-5 in Big Ten action.
Christian Hackenberg threw for a season-low 93 yards and has netted 934 in the past six games. He threw for 1,534 yards in the first five.
Coach James Franklin labeled Hackenberg as ''really, really competitive'' and said the sophomore has been frustrated.
''Christian has really high standards and expectations for himself and who he wants to be and how he wants to play,'' Franklin said. ''I think he's handled it pretty well. He was one of the guys in my office Saturday night as one of the captains talking about these things. There is nobody harder on Hack than Hack.''
Hackenberg, who has 14 interceptions and eight TD passes, has been sacked 39 times and limped away from a play at Illinois.
Franklin also said the Nittany Lions must better handle adversity and be aware they are not going to play a perfect game for 60 minutes.
He maintained that his oft-maligned offensive line continues to improve, and offered a reason behind a sub-par running game and the consistent defensive pressure on Hackenberg.
''People didn't really know who and what we were going to be (in the first four games),'' Franklin said. ''They have seen a weakness, and now the entire defensive game plan is about attacking those things over and over and over again.''
Yet, Franklin remains optimistic.
''I think the understanding of what we're trying to do and why has improved,'' he said. ''It's the consistency and the execution that we haven't been able to do.''