Nov. 26, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EVANSTON, Ill. - With two simple sentences on a gloomy afternoon, B.J. Cunningham raised what was widely regarded as a perfunctory regular-season finale played in a half-filled stadium to prestigious plateau.
"Nobody's ever done this at Michigan State," the senior wideout said. "To have back-to-back double-digit seasons means a lot."
The Spartans had already clinched a berth in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game a week earlier, so the result of Saturday's game at Northwestern was anticlimactic when looked at in the context of the Legends Division race.
However, the rain-soaked 31-17 victory over the Wildcats put MSU's record at 10-2 heading into the title game against Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis next Saturday night. When coupled with last season's 11-2 finish, this team added yet another milestone to the foundation head coach Mark Dantonio is building.
No team in recent Spartans history had a better appreciation for the big picture than this one does. With the rematch against the Badgers, who MSU defeated 37-31 on the last play of the Oct. 22 game in Spartan Stadium, set aside for another day, there was other business that needed to be settled.
For example, had Michigan State lost, it would have divided the Legends Division Championship with archrival Michigan.
"We want to go into next week with a lot of momentum," said defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, "and it was important that we got the win today, first of all just to get 10 on the year because that looks better on the resume. We also didn't want to share our division (title) with Michigan, so there was a lot of motivation.
"They all kind of go hand-in-hand a little bit when you play with that type of determination and fire we did today. Guys are playing their best football as of late and that's the most important thing going into the Big Ten Championship Game."
It would have been easy, if not understandable, for MSU to go through the motions against Northwestern. After all, two postseason games are guaranteed and even bigger goals are still attainable.
But according to senior offensive guard Joel Foreman, these Spartans aren't wired that way. Furthermore, what they accomplished was earned against a worthy opponent that wasn't about to lie down.
"Getting to double-digit wins is something we've been pointing to all year because it's something that hasn't been done back-to-back in Michigan State history," Foreman said. "People expected us to come out here (and mail it in), and I heard rumors about us resting starters and what-not.
"But every game in the Big Ten is important no matter what. This was another statement for us to come out here and win on the road whether next week is guaranteed or not. I think this is a testament to the way this program is being built. It's real important to us to have consistent winning seasons and to defend that Big Ten Championship."
In addition to team accomplishments, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins continued to rewrite individual portions of the MSU record book. His two touchdown passes to Cunningham put him at 62 for his career and moved him ahead of Jeff Smoker on the all-time list.
They might as well have been to win the division all over again.
"Coach Dantonio really wasn't celebrating this past week," Cousins said. "He wasn't that happy because he felt there was still a job yet to be completed. He was happy after this one. He was in the locker room celebrating because he really felt that was the win that clinched the division.
"To come out and play this game when you know you have the championship game clinched, in weather like this on the road and still give the effort we gave shows a lot of maturity and a lot of discipline by our football team."
In August, there was preseason talk that Michigan State could be a better team than in 2010, but wind up with a significantly less-attractive record and finish further down the standings. For one thing, the Spartans faced a killer conference schedule that included games at Ohio State, home versus Michigan and Wisconsin and at Big Ten newcomer Nebraska in succession.
Michigan State defied the experts by settling scores with the Badgers and Buckeyes, who shared last season's title with MSU, and the only stumble came on the road against the Cornhuskers, which lost to Northwestern a week later.
The victory over the Wildcats removed virtually any doubt that MSU deserves to be where it is.
"You wonder why I'm so excited?" Dantonio asked. "People talked about this 12th game and how to play it. It is so much better when you do it this way and it means so much more to everybody. We'll remember this for the rest of our lives.
"That's the kind of focus we put on this football game."
Under the circumstances, going 10-2 so far surpasses last season's accomplishment.
"Stats show that for every 10 teams that handle adversity like we did last year, only one team can handle success, of those 10," Dantonio said. "We were able to look at what we've done and build on top of it. I think this is a program statement, stacking 10-2 on top of another winning season."
The Spartans arrived at Ryan Field wearing round pins on their warm-up suits. It was symbolic of what Dantonio's late father Justin, who died at the age of 86 earlier this season, used to say about "completing the circle."
For players like senior nose tackle Kevin Pickelman, five years of work is going to be boiled down into a 60-minute showdown with Wisconsin to play in MSU's first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.
"We've been talking about how the days are long but the years fly by," Pickelman said. "I couldn't even imagine being at this point or having these opportunities. It's just a dream-come-true, and I'm going to put in all the work I can and do everything I can to get to the Rose Bowl."