Spartans await opponent for Big Ten title game
Half of the inaugural Big Ten title game is set. Now Michigan State must wait to find out its opponent.
The Spartans became the first team to qualify for the conference's new championship game when they routed Indiana 55-3 on Saturday - and Nebraska lost to Michigan. Michigan State will represent the Legends Division on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis, taking on the winner of next weekend's Penn State-Wisconsin game.
''Ultimately, it's our players who play and they have done a tremendous job leading and setting the bar,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''They continue to set the bar higher for the next group. That's what will allow us to reach our dreams of a national championship again. I think those things can happen as long as we keep getting players that will buy in - and more talent, more experience, with different ways to do things.''
The Spartans shared the Big Ten title last season with Wisconsin and Ohio State, but they had to settle for a Capital One Bowl trip when the Badgers won the tiebreaker to advance to the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes were invited to the Sugar Bowl.
Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) has again given itself a chance to earn a spot in a big postseason game. The Spartans will play at Northwestern next weekend to finish the regular season, but they'll go to Indianapolis no matter the result.
Michigan State moved up one spot Sunday to No. 11 in the AP Top 25. The Spartans lost to Notre Dame and Nebraska on the road, but went unbeaten at home for the second consecutive year.
''When we hired Coach Dantonio the vision of painting roses on the cleats were the expectations going into every season, and those continue to be our expectations,'' athletic director Mark Hollis said. ''I'm very proud of our football program. I'm very proud of our football staff, our fans, the marching band and everybody who is a part of this program.''
Senior Kirk Cousins threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns in just over a half Saturday.
If Michigan State meets Wisconsin in the title game it would be a rematch of their October clash in East Lansing, which the Spartans won on a heave toward the end zone that was caught for a tiebreaking touchdown on the game's final play.
If Penn State is the opponent, it will feel a bit familiar for Michigan State fans. The Spartans and Nittany Lions had made a tradition of meeting at the end of the regular season, with the Land Grant Trophy at stake, until the Big Ten expanded and put the teams in different divisions this season. They haven't played in 2011.
''We are really going to have to earn it,'' said wide receiver Keith Nichol, who caught that last-second pass to beat Wisconsin. ''Looking for a great opponent there when we go to Indianapolis, but we can't look too far ahead. We have Northwestern. They are a great team, great players, great coach, it is hard to beat them at Northwestern.''
Dantonio said after Saturday's game he had no plans to rest players at Northwestern. If the Spartans win the Big Ten title, they'll be guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl, but if they don't, what happens next weekend could play a role in determining where they go for the postseason.
''We need to continue to build,'' Dantonio said. ''We'll go there with everything that we've done, all the plans that we've made and all the same focus.''