No. 11 Spartans have eyes on Big 10 title
Michigan State-Penn State is about so much more than the Land Grant Trophy this year, at least for the Spartans.
A win would give No. 11 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) a chance to claim at least a share of the school's first Big Ten title since 1990 and stay in contention for the conference's Rose Bowl berth.
Jockeying for bowl position atop the Big Ten with fellow one-loss teams Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Spartans' bowl scenarios range from a trip to Pasadena to another New Year's Day game - albeit a less prestigious, non-BCS contest - in Florida.
The BCS standings could factor in. Entering the weekend, Michigan State was 10th in those ratings, behind seventh-ranked Wisconsin and eighth-ranked Ohio State.
''We have plenty to be focused about just because of the Big Ten championship,'' quarterback Kirk Cousins said. ''We really do not care about the whole bowl situation because it's out of our hands.''
It's a role reversal of sorts this weekend in Happy Valley.
Typically, coach Joe Paterno's crew is in the hunt for a Big Ten title or trying to make a statement to nail a BCS berth. But the Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-3) were knocked out of contention weeks ago following a .500 start. They're 4-1 since then, and there's hope that a victory could boost the confidence of an injury-ravaged team that starts just eight seniors.
And a win is anything but automatic for the Spartans at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State has won eight straight at home against Michigan State, with the Spartans' last victory there coming in 1965 - the year before Paterno took over as head coach.
Paterno, though, says Spartans coach Mark D'Antonio's team has come a long way in his fourth season in East Lansing.
''I think you've got to start with Mark, and I think he's had a concept of what it will take. And he had enough guts to stick with it,'' Paterno said. ''And right now he's reaping the benefits.''
The best linebackers on the field Saturday might not be playing for Linebacker U. Once among the country's top defensive units, the Nittany Lions have had a subpar pass rush and have lacked a consistent big-play terror at linebacker.
The closest might be Michael Mauti, but he's one of several players to miss time this year because of injury. Mauti's latest ailment is an injured right shoulder that kept him out of the Indiana win last week; he was listed as ''probable'' for Saturday.
Junior linebacker Nate Stupar filled the void with 10 tackles in perhaps the best game of his three-year career. He'll need to maintain that level of play against the Spartans' balanced attack, even if steady quarterback Kirk Cousins (left shoulder, left ankle) isn't at 100 percent.
Cousins was determined to play Saturday with a conference title on the line.
Penn State's just as determined to give the senior class a memorable send-off in the Happy Valley finale.
''We're playing for a chance to play in a New Year's Day bowl, and send our seniors off with a win,'' Stupar said. ''It's a big game for us.''