Spartans have chance to seize opportunity

Michigan State has spent the season peeling off the "same old Spartans" label that has been affixed for the better part of a decade.

In two weeks, the Spartans can remove it for good.

If the Spartans can finish, they will record a team-record 11 victories. They will show that they're an emerging force in an improving conference. And if things fall right elsewhere, they will punch their ticket to Pasadena for the first time since Jan. 1, 1988.

It's all there for Michigan State. This is the time to seize the moment.

"We can be, at the very minimum, co-Big Ten champions," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said last week. "I know we can control that. We'll need a little help to be outright [champions], to go to the Rose Bowl. The main thing to me is be a champion.

"That's what we'll try to do, strive to do."

Michigan State resumes play Saturday against Purdue in East Lansing.

The Boilers are banged up and will come in as heavy underdogs, but they're also fighting to remain in the hunt for a bowl berth. Purdue has been resilient throughout coach Danny Hope's tenure, and the Boilers need to win to avoid their third consecutive losing season.

Still, this is a game Michigan State should handle. It's important for the Spartans to recapture the form they displayed in early October in impressive victories against Wisconsin and Michigan. Although the Spartans have won three of their last four since the Michigan win, they haven't looked quite as crisp.

Edwin Baker bolstered a struggling rushing attack Nov. 6 against Minnesota, but quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to bounce back after throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown pass in his past two games.

A strong performance on Senior Day should boost Michigan State heading into its regular-season finale at Penn State.

The Penn State game likely will be the true test of how far Dantonio has taken the program in his four years as coach. Although the Nittany Lions aren't an elite team this year, they have won five of the team's last six meetings.

Michigan State hasn't won in Happy Valley since Penn State joined the Big Ten. The Spartans' last win in State College came in 1965. If Ohio State stumbles this week at Iowa and Michigan State beats Purdue, the Spartans will be playing for a Rose Bowl berth. Throw in the potential drama surrounding Penn State coach Joe Paterno and his future, and you have quite a setting.

The Spartans have showed this season they can overcome adversity, whether it be in games against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Notre Dame, or whether it be dealing with the temporary absence of their head coach. They have shown more mental toughness, more leadership, more creativity and more resiliency than their Green and White predecessors.

Only one question remains: Can they finish?

"The message to our football team is: We'll evaluate our body of work at the end, not after 10 games, not after 11 games," Dantonio said. "We've got to look at the whole body of work and then say, 'OK, this is what we are, then celebrate that.'"

If the Spartans can call themselves Big Ten champions, there will be plenty to celebrate.