Michigan State alone atop division again
The stakes will feel awfully familiar next weekend for Kirk Cousins and Michigan State.
The 13th-ranked Spartans are alone atop the Big Ten's Legends Division, but their next game is at Iowa against the team that handed them their only regular-season loss of 2010. Michigan State was undefeated last season before losing 37-6 to the Hawkeyes. The Spartans still finished in a tie for the conference title, but that defeat ended up costing them a berth in a BCS bowl.
''It's a new team this year on both sides of the ball,'' said Cousins, Michigan State's quarterback. ''Obviously we want to make it personal each and every week to find as much motivation as possible, and with last year's result we can find a way to make it personal.''
Cousins threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in a 31-24 win over Minnesota. The Spartans came into the game tied for first in the division with Michigan and Nebraska, but the Wolverines lost around the same time Michigan State was finishing its game - and the Cornhuskers fell to Northwestern later in the day.
The Spartans moved up two spots in the AP poll Sunday, although they needed a strong fourth quarter to beat the upset-minded Golden Gophers. Michigan State finally took the lead for good when Le'Veon Bell's 35-yard scoring run broke a 24-all tie with 10:58 remaining in the game.
''I think emotionally, we come ready to play,'' Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. ''As games wear on and the play develops, and players have things happen to them in the game, the most difficult thing is keeping that emotion or playing through those adverse situations. You have to rally to play, and I think our guys did that.''
Bell ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and the Spartans (7-2, 4-1) shut out Minnesota after the Gophers (2-7, 1-4) took a 24-21 lead with 9:40 to play in the third quarter.
MarQueis Gray threw three touchdown passes to Da'Jon McKnight for Minnesota, which upset Iowa the previous weekend.
The Gophers did succeed in knocking Michigan State from No. 1 to No. 2 in the nation in pass defense.
''They have a great defense. They did a great job and are hyped up,'' Gray said. ''On offense we just tried to focus on one play at a time and I think we did that. We just didn't make enough plays to win the game.''
Michigan State had fallen back into that first-place tie by losing at Nebraska, but the Spartans bounced back against the Gophers. They now control their own destiny again. Win the last three games against Iowa, Indiana and Northwestern, and Michigan State will play in the inaugural Big Ten title game.
There isn't much room for error, however. Iowa edged Michigan on Saturday, so the Hawkeyes, Wolverines and Cornhuskers are all only a game behind the Spartans.
''Any way you cut it - seven wins, 4-1 in the conference - and we're right there,'' Dantonio said. ''We survived one playoff win as far as I'm concerned. That's how we have to challenge ourselves and take this.''
Michigan State was coming off a 24-3 loss at Nebraska, and the Spartans didn't take their first lead against Minnesota until the final seconds of the first half. Cousins probably cost Michigan State at least three points when he lost his cool during the second quarter.
With the game tied at 14, the Spartans had the ball inside the Minnesota 20 when there was movement up front for a false start that caused Cousins to take an unsportsmanlike conduct flag by throwing the ball into the ground in exasperation.
''We talked about emotion all week long, that Minnesota would come with emotion,'' Dantonio said. ''We were going to have to match that.''