Opportunistic Spartans sit atop Big Ten

Updated: October 19, 2003, 2:36 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Michigan State has made the most of its opportunities so far.

The real challenge for the Spartans will be whether they can take advantage of their 4-0 conference record and ride the momentum to a Big Ten title.

"This is the start of an uphill climb," coach John L. Smith said after his team beat the Gophers 44-38 Saturday.

The Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten) have already climbed a long way.

A year ago, they were already eliminated from the Big Ten race. They finished the 2002 season with only two conference wins, quarterback Jeff Smoker was suspended for the final five games for substance abuse problems and head coach Bobby Williams was fired with three games left.

But it's a much different picture now. Smith has helped turn the program get back on track, Smoker has been one the conference's best quarterbacks and the Spartans are the only 4-0 team in the conference.

And they also have a week off before facing in-state rival Michigan.

"I'm not looking at our record," defensive tackle Greg Yeaster said. "I'm looking at the rest of the season. We have Michigan coming up soon. We have to focus on the rest of the games."

After the Wolverines, who are looking strong again after falling out of the Top 10 two weeks ago, the Spartans travel to Ohio State and Wisconsin before closing out the season against Penn State. Winning out will be a tough task to say the least.

But the Spartans do have history on their side; they've started out 4-0 in conference play only twice before in 1965 and 1966. They went on to win the Big Ten title both times and finished 7-0 in conference play.

This year's team will need to continue its opportunistic play if it wants a shot at the Rose Bowl. Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) turned the ball over three times and the Spartans converted each of them for scores.

The first opportunity came on the opening kickoff, when Jared Posthumus couldn't handle Dave Rayner's short kick and fumbled the ball. The Spartans took over and scored to go up 7-0.

Gophers quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq committed the second turnover when he fumbled after being sacked at the Minnesota 40. Again, the Spartans drove and scored a touchdown.

Minnesota's third mistake was a big one; Marion Barber III fumbled after DeAndra Cobb silenced the crowd with his 100-yard kickoff return. The Spartans recovered Barber's fumble and kicked a field goal for a 34-17 halftime lead.

"We're just playing together as a team," Smoker said. "The turnovers, again, were huge."

While the Spartans' title hopes are alive and well, the Gophers are running out of chances.

It was only two weeks ago that Minnesota looked good with an undefeated record. The Gophers are still trying to stay optimistic. But they realize the situation is falling out of their control.

"There's no room for error," defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. "We've got to win out these last four games."

Factor in superb special teams play from Michigan State -- Cobb's return, Rayner's three field goals and great punting by Rayner and Brandon Fields -- along with Minnesota's stagnant running game and it's a miracle the Gophers were able to make the score respectable.

"I would have told you we would have lost by 60 points," coach Glen Mason said. "That shows how well this team hung in there and battled."

But the players know that hanging in there won't be enough for a conference title.

"In the Big Ten, you can't turn the ball over like that," Abdul-Khaliq said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index