Root for rival? Spartans need help from Wolverines

Published Nov. 24, 2010 5:14 p.m. ET

Well, well, well, Michigan State. This is quite a quandary. A moral dilemma for Spartans far and wide.

A win at Penn State this weekend will clinch at least a tie for the Big Ten title and perhaps a trip to the Rose Bowl. There's only one small problem.

You need Ohio State to lose.

And who are the Buckeyes playing? Your hated rivals from Ann Arbor, of course.

''I can't root for Michigan,'' Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham said. ''But I hope they win.''

Pity poor Cunningham. For three years, his job has been to beat Michigan, which he's done with unusual regularity. So now, with No. 11 Michigan State so close to its eternal goal of playing in Pasadena, the Spartans are supposed to save a few best wishes for the maize and blue?

''I don't know,'' running back Edwin Baker said cautiously. ''I wouldn't say necessarily I'll be rooting for Michigan, but I'll be rooting against Ohio State - if that makes sense?''


It makes perfect sense to anyone who cares about one of college football's best in-state feuds - and anyone who has followed this season's wild Big Ten title race.

With one game remaining, Michigan State is tied for first with No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State. If all three teams finish deadlocked, the BCS standings would be used as a tiebreaker, and right now the Spartans trail the other two teams in those rankings.

But the Spartans would trump Wisconsin in a two-way tiebreaker, so if Michigan State beats Penn State on Saturday and Michigan can hand Ohio State another loss in The Game ...

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio understands exactly what's at stake. But he's also a former Ohio State assistant, so will he allow himself - just this once - to pull for the Wolverines?

''Everything's irrelevant unless we win, so we'll worry about that after we win,'' Dantonio said, a grin on his face. ''Was that a good answer? Best I can do.''

The Spartans are adopting their coach's approach, well aware that too much talk about Michigan and Ohio State would be disrespectful to Penn State. If Michigan State can't beat the Nittany Lions, it won't matter what Ohio State does.

Dantonio has said over and over that his team's goal is to win the conference - and if that title is shared with someone else, so be it. As for any Rose Bowl tiebreaker, the Spartans have no control over that, so why worry?

And the Wolverines? They aren't too thrilled with this state of affairs, either. Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen, who is from Whitehall, Mich., said he doesn't recall the Spartans ever rooting for the Wolverines.

''It's grotesque,'' Van Bergen said.

Van Bergen's mother, Toni, works for a Michigan State extension office near his hometown and found out just how unique this situation is.

''She's always got Michigan stuff on her desk and pictures of me in uniform,'' he said. ''This week, she said people have been coming in saying, 'I hope your son does well this week,' and, 'I really hope they knock them off.'

''At first, she's thinking, 'They're being really nice.' Now, she's realizing they have their own agenda.''

Toni Van Bergen's response?

''I told them, first they have to win their game,'' she said. ''It's all very friendly in here. ... I have had a couple people say they'll have to be flipping back and forth.''

They'll be flipping channels because the Michigan State-Penn State game starts at the same time as Michigan-Ohio State. So even though the Spartans want the Wolverines to win, they won't have to sit around pulling for them.

Which is fine. Because that would be awkward.

''That's something that comes after the game,'' Dantonio said. ''And by then, it'll already be established, so I'll know one way or the other.''