EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before No. 11 Michigan State could start thinking about next week's Big Ten championship game and possible BCS scenarios, it had to finish the regular season against Minnesota.
That did not come easily. The Spartans scored touchdowns on the first drive of each half Saturday but otherwise managed nothing else on offense. The defense, not surprisingly, saved the day by forcing three turnovers and holding the Gophers to a field goal in 14-3 victory at Spartan Stadium.
"We grinded it out," head coach Mark Dantonio said.
The final score might not look overly impressive, but the final tally on the regular season sure does for the Spartans. They're 11-1, the program's third 11-win season in the past four years. They went 8-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in school history. A senior class that was honored before Saturday's game now has 40 wins, the most by any group in Michigan State history, plus two Legends Division titles and a share of a Big Ten championship.
There's just one thing missing during this nearly unprecedented era of success under Dantonio, and it's glaring: a BCS game. The Spartans came close two years ago in Indianapolis, narrowly losing to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. They're determined not to suffer that same fate next week when they play No. 3 Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, with a bid to their first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season on the line.
"I remember looking in the seniors' eyes and seeing the hurt," senior linebacker Denicos Allen said about the 2011 loss. "I saw people cry that I never thought I'd see cry. I know it's a lot of emotion. Not being to the Rose Bowl in so long and having that in our head ... the opportunity is in front of us, and that's definitely motivation for this team."
Michigan State did not play Ohio State in the regular season, but veteran players know what it's like to come up just short against the Buckeyes, too. The Spartans lost 17-16 to the Buckeyes last season at home, setting the stage for a season of heartbreaking defeats. That was Ohio State's first Big Ten victory under Urban Meyer, and the Buckeyes haven't lost a game in two years.
But Michigan State, with the nation's No. 1 defense, believes it can match up well with the Buckeyes, who lead the Big Ten in scoring.
"I feel like we owe them for last year," senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. "They got us by an inch. This year, we're going to do whatever we have to do not to let that happen again."
"We lost by a point," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "They're not the same team, and we have to respect them for that. But, whatever, play the game. Don't be intimidated by their record or what people say about them."
Michigan State knows it will have to perform better on offense in Indianapolis than it did on Saturday. After several weeks of consistent improvement, the offense took a step backward against the Gophers, going 0-for-8 on third down. Connor Cook threw an interception in the final seconds of the first half with the team in field-goal position. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said flatly that it "wasn't a championship-level performance."
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is taking nothing for granted, either, even after his unit created three turnovers and limited Minnesota to 249 yards. Narduzzi told reporters that the defense would go live in practice this week, meaning full tackling. The Spartans didn't do that last year before playing Ohio State and Narduzzi thought it was a mistake.
"I can't believe you guys didn't laugh about that; it's the 14th week of the season and we're going live," senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "But it's the truth. Against a guy like Braxton Miller, we need to prepare and we need to be able to take him down to the ground. We've got to have the best week of practice we've ever had."
Dantonio said earlier in the week that Michigan State was playing for a BCS bid on Saturday and that he would campaign for an at-large berth should the Spartans lose in the Big Ten championship game. After the victory, he said the Big Ten deserves a second bid and that his team has done enough to earn one.
"There is always going to be risk in playing a championship game," he said. "If we were to sit back right now and say, 'Hey, let's let somebody else play in that championship game,' I don't think there would be any question we would be in a BCS game. But we're not going to do that. We're going to put all the chips on the table and try to go to the Rose Bowl."
Michigan State's seniors remember getting passed over for the BCS despite double-digit wins in 2010 and 2011. They don't want to let that happen again. There's one sure way to avoid it: finish on top in Indianapolis this time around.
"Walking off the field [two years ago] without the roses in our mouth left a bad taste," Dennard said. "This time, we're going to put everything we have into it and come out with a win."