Spartans still alive in Big Ten title race

November, 4, 2008
11/04/08
10:56
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As the debate continues about Penn State's viability as a national title contender, the Michigan State Spoilers, uh, Spartans, have an announcement to make.

The Big Ten race isn't over yet.

Many peg Penn State to sweep its final three games, win the Big Ten title outright and then wait to learn whether it qualifies for the BCS national championship game. But Michigan State could throw a wrench into things by upsetting the third-ranked Nittany Lions on Nov. 22. Of course, the Spartans must first get by Purdue on Saturday, and Penn State needs to beat both Iowa and Indiana.

But if Michigan State finishes in a first-place tie with both Penn State and Ohio State, the Spartans would win the Big Ten's BCS tiebreaker. If the Spartans finish tied with only Ohio State, the Buckeyes would get the nod because of a 45-7 win on Oct. 18.

"It's up to us," Spartans quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "We can control our own destiny. We know a lot of teams can't say that their goals are still intact this late in the season, and ours still are. It's something that we definitely are aware of and are definitely working for.

"If anything, it adds some extra incentive to these last two games."

Michigan State's season likely won't be captured in a Hollywood script.

The Spartans rank in the middle of the Big Ten in almost every major statistical category. They aren't flashy like Illinois, and they don't have a catchy name for their offense like Penn State. Their starting quarterback still gets ragged for completing less than half of his passes (49.4) despite throwing the second fewest interceptions (4) among Big Ten full-time starters.

After Michigan State's come-from-behind win Saturday against Wisconsin, Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote of the Spartans: "They're probably the worst 8-2 team in the country." Perhaps, but Michigan State has learned how to win after dropping six games by seven points or fewer in 2007, head coach Mark Dantonio's first season at the school.

Hoyer, who had been criticized for losing close games, rallied Michigan State to the game-winning field goal Saturday by taking the offense 56 yards in 1:07.

"I felt comfortable out there," said Hoyer, who has played arguably his best two games the last two weeks. "A lot of that goes to coach Dantonio. From spring practice to fall camp, we ended every practice with the two-minute drill. So I felt like I'd been there before, and really I had been in some game situations last year.

"But now, it's something for real. We're playing for something. We're playing for a Big Ten championship, and you've got to come up with some plays."

Whether or not the Spartans win out, they've taken an important step toward eliminating a troubling character trait. They are 4-1 since Oct. 1 -- formerly a fall-off point for the program -- and responded from a poor performance against Ohio State with back-to-back victories.

Those waiting for Michigan State to crumble will be disappointed.

"That perception was bound to change when coach Dantonio was hired," Hoyer said. "He knows how to motivate a team. He knows how to keep us focused. I don't think people expected it to happen this fast."

Same goes for a Big Ten title.

"Coach Dantonio came in last year, and we wanted to build a foundation," Hoyer said. "Well, if we can go out and win a Big Ten championship, what better way to build a foundation for a program, for a new coach in his second year. So there's a lot riding on it. But we welcome the challenge."

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12