No. 11 Michigan State wants victory in Evanston
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP)
Mark Dantonio's math tells him that even though Michigan State has wrapped up the Legends Division title and a berth in the Big Ten championship game, a win in Saturday's regular-season finale against Northwestern would have a nice sound and look to it.
A win might also boost the Spartans in the national rankings, where they are 11th in the AP poll and 14th in the BCS standings.
''I think there is a difference between 10-2 and 9-3,'' the Michigan State coach said.
So forget resting regulars or nursing bumps and bruises a week before the title game, where a Rose Bowl berth could be in the offing.
''The natural thing to do is to continue to try and win,'' Dantonio said. ''Nobody likes to be shown up. ... I think it speaks to our maturity as individuals and as a football team to be able to press forward and climb and gain momentum.''
The Spartans (9-2, 6-1) will face either Penn State or Wisconsin the following weekend in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. So the way Dantonio sees it, Saturday's game against the Wildcats (6-5, 3-4) will be a tune-up and a chance to build a winning streak to four games. He won't be saving anything for the following week.
''We are going to do everything we can to win this football game,'' he said. ''If someone is nicked up and can't play, he won't play. But if our trainers say he can go, then he'll go.''
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is 25-11 as a starter for the Spartans, including 20-4 the last two seasons, and needs one TD pass to tie the school record (61) held by Jeff Smoker. He's got two reliable targets in B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.
The Spartans are averaging 41 points and 438 yards during their current three-game winning streak, and Cousins has passed for eight TDs in the stretch, completing 65 percent of his passes.
And the Spartans' league-leading defense, featuring linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, and defensive end William Gholston, has 32 sacks and 16 interceptions and will try to contain Northwestern's big-play combo of Dan Persa and Jeremy Ebert.
Should the Spartans lose and Michigan beats Ohio State, the Spartans and Wolverines would have the same conference record, although Michigan State has already clinched the division title because it beat Michigan head-to-head.
''If we go down (to Northwestern) and we lose, that does something to your morale whether you realize it or not,'' Spartans safety Trenton Robinson told the Lansing State Journal.
''To go down here and lose would just be awful. It'd be awful. We'd be tying with the team down the street, so it takes away almost everything we've been working toward.''
Fifteen of Ebert's 20 career touchdown catches have been thrown by Persa. The tandem is two short of the school record set from 1995-96 by QB Steve Schnur and D'Wayne Bates. This season, Persa and Ebert have connected on TD passes of 81 and 90 yards.
The Wildcats became bowl eligible with a victory over Minnesota last week and Northwestern will be trying to extend its winning streak to five games for the third time in the Pat Fitzgerald era. They'll also be trying to clinch a winning season.
And 7-5 will also look and sound a lot better to bowl scouts than 6-6.
Northwestern's spread offense also features the versatility of Kain Colter, who filled in for Persa this season as he battled injuries. Colter is a threat as a runner, passer and receiver.
''They feature their players relative to what they do best. They put you in compromising situations in space. They do different things with formations,'' Dantonio said.
''They create a run-pass conflict for you, a no-huddle offense ...They create a different dimension in terms of how fast they go.''
And there are similarities between the programs, even if the Spartans - who shared the Big Ten title a year ago - have enjoyed more success over the last two seasons. Both schools are bowl eligible for a fifth straight season and feature senior classes that are used to winning since they arrived.
''There is a reason why they won the Legends already,'' Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ''They are extremely well-coached by Mark and his staff and they play as a team. It's been impressive to watch.''