Plenty on the line for Michigan State seniors
As he prepared for the final home game of his college career, Michigan State's Greg Jones was asked to guess which senior might be the first to break down while saying goodbye to Spartan Stadium.
He initially guessed tight end Charlie Gantt, but then he added a few words about Eric Gordon, who has started alongside Jones at linebacker for 37 straight games.
''I'm going to say Gordo, too,'' Jones said. ''I'm going to call him out before he calls me out.''
Time is running short now for the 11th-ranked Spartans, and yet it feels like there's so much football left to be played. These seniors have led Michigan State on a memorable run this season, one that could culminate in a trip to the Rose Bowl if everything goes right over the next two weeks.
When the Spartans host Purdue on Saturday, the seniors will be trying for their 32nd win at Michigan State, which would set a school record.
''I wanted to come here and help build this program back and be a part of something special,'' Gordon said. ''It's definitely a dream come true.''
With two games remaining in the regular season, the Spartans (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) are tied for first in the conference with Ohio State and Wisconsin - a remarkable turnaround for a team that went 6-7 last season. Ohio State faces a tough game at Iowa this weekend, and if Michigan State ends up in a two-way tie with Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, the Spartans would win the tiebreaker.
The Spartans are heavy favorites against a Purdue team that has lost four straight, but the last thing they need to do is take anything for granted with so much on the line. Michigan State had an open date last weekend, which coach Mark Dantonio says helped his team get healthy, but the Spartans need to avoid a rusty performance Saturday.
''We had this kind of situation two years ago,'' Dantonio said. ''We had a bye before the Penn State game, and I felt like we came out flat. ... So hopefully you look at every bye week, you take it as they come, and you try to restructure it and structure it so that you're going to be fresh. This was a little different, because we're playing at home.''
Dantonio is in his fourth season at Michigan State, so he's gone through the same ups and downs as this senior class. Throughout Dantonio's tenure, Jones has been a mainstay on defense. He was an All-American last year, and he and Gordon have combined for 755 career tackles, the most by any active linebacker duo in major college football.
''We'll miss those guys,'' Dantonio said. ''We'll miss a lot of our seniors. They have had great careers here. Greg is one of the premier linebackers in this country and certainly hasn't gone unnoticed.''
The Spartans themselves will need to contain another defensive standout on Saturday. Defensive end Ryan Kerrigan has 11.5 sacks this season for Purdue, including four in last weekend's loss to Michigan.
Like Jones, Kerrigan decided to stick around for his senior year instead of turning pro, and although the Boilermakers (4-6, 2-4) are struggling to become bowl eligible, Kerrigan is trying to make the most of his final season.
''I've really had a lot of fun this season,'' he said. ''I wasn't ready to leave as a person or as a player. I have no regrets. Hopefully we can finish it off right.''
That's the same goal Jones and the Spartans have, only for them, a good finish could mean a trip to the Rose Bowl. Still, no matter how much Michigan State has to look forward to, playing at home for the last time will be emotional.
''All the memories, on the field, off the field. All the bowl games and everything we've been through,'' Jones said. ''Walking off the field, playing at Spartan Stadium for the last time, will definitely be hard.''