EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's motto coming into this season was "Reach Higher." In truth, there isn't much space between the program and the limits of ascension.
After back-to-back top-five finishes and victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls the past two years, all the No. 5 Spartans really have left to check off is competing for a national title. With Saturday night's 31-28 win over No. 7 Oregon, they added a little more altitude toward that goal.
It's still too early to be awarding spots in the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State just earned the best win of this young season by knocking off the Pac-12's reigning superpower. Let it be known Ohio State officially has company as a playoff contender in the Big Ten.
"In my mind, this is a stepping-stone game," Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. "It will pay dividends at the end of the season."
As successful as Dantonio's teams have been the past two falls, they have had to overcome September losses each time, including one to these Ducks in Eugene a year ago. This time, they wouldn't be denied, even if it took every last ounce of strength to accomplish.
The defense, maligned after a sloppy opening performance at Western Michigan, held Oregon's blur attack to just three offensive touchdowns and managed four fourth-down stops, including one at its own goal line. One play after Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams overthrew the outstretched hands of Byron Marshall for a potential winning touchdown (good thing the Ducks' motto isn't "Reach Longer"), Michigan State defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas and linebacker Chris Frey combined on a crucial sack of Adams. That felt good after Marcus Mariota wiggled free of so many grasps in last year's game.
"He's not Mariota," Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said of Adams, "but it was still special."
Dantonio also played to win instead of not to lose, twice going for it on fourth down. He was rewarded both times, including a fourth-and-6 from the Oregon 34 that saw quarterback Connor Cook make an NFL-caliber delivery to Aaron Burbridge for a 28-yard gain. Michigan State scored one play later for a lead it would not relinquish.
"We weren't not going to get it," center Jack Allen said.
Allen spearheaded a powerful effort by the Spartans' offensive line, which bullied Oregon's defense at times, especially in the third quarter. The defensive line, which Dantonio has said could be the best of his tenure, brought the heat on Adams and helped lead to four sacks. Michigan State's advantages in the trenches was obvious, and its the strength that could carry this team a long way.
How long depends on how they build off this win, of course, and how they fare in the most important game on their schedule: Nov. 21 at No. 1 Ohio State. But even a loss to the Buckeyes, provided it is competitive, wouldn't necessarily kill Michigan State's playoff chances. The selection committee may not look favorably on a non-division winner, but the Spartans' decision here over Oregon would be difficult to ignore if the Ducks repeat as Pac-12 champs.
And who's to say Michigan State can't topple Ohio State if it keeps improving?
"This is another little building block for our season," linebacker Riley Bullough said. "I think it gives us some confidence that we can play against a team like Oregon and play pretty well."
Dantonio has eliminated the sense of dread that used to accompany this program in big moments like Saturday night. He said the biggest takeaway from the victory, aside from the energy and atmosphere in Spartan Stadium, was "just the attitude that we were going to get it done."
They did, and they deserve their share of the spotlight. Dantonio was well aware Jim Harbaugh and Michigan have drawn more attention the past nine months than the in-state team that has far outperformed the Wolverines of late. Several national writers made the short hop from Ann Arbor to East Lansing on Saturday after covering Harbaugh's home debut.
Michigan gained an encouraging win over Oregon State. Michigan State made a statement by beating Oregon.
"I just think that this was the place to be, in the state, today," Dantonio pointedly said.
And if the Spartans continue to extend their reach, they could wind up in the best of places at the end of this season.