By Ashley Dunkak
After recording a resounding victory over in-state rival Michigan and taking the lead in the Legends division, the Michigan State Spartans are still looking for more. It all starts Saturday, when the Spartans play in Lincoln, Neb.
With a win, Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) would clinch at least a share of the division championship.
“We’re to the point where we go to this game and we have an opportunity to at least clinch the Legends Division title if we win this football game,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Doesn’t mean that we’d be the outright winners going to the championship game, but we would at least clinch a co-championship if we win. That’s real. That’s something our players understand and can touch. There should be no lack of motivation.
“The reality is people work their entire four or five years as a player to get to a point where they’re in November where you have an opportunity to take steps towards reaching your ultimate goals,” Dantonio continued. “That doesn’t always happen because there are so many different variables that come into play where you get hung up on this or you stub your toe on that or you have an injury here, or – things happen.”
Right now, the Spartans are in a position to dictate what happens.
It could be easier said that done, however, since the Spartans have yet to defeat the Huskers under the leadership of Dantonio. With losses to UCLA and Minnesota this season, Nebraska is far from infallible, but the atmosphere of Memorial Stadium is something Dantonio said caught the Spartans by surprise when the team traveled there in 2011.
“They’ve got a great environment to play in,” Dantonio said. “It’s going to be exciting to go into that environment and play. Our players have to understand what that’s all about. The last time we went there, I don’t know that our players understood the environment. It’s a little different. So this year, at least we have that experience behind us, and now we can move forward.”
The intensity and devotion to Nebraska football, going back to to its storied tradition, makes the crowd there something unlike any other place. Dantonio said that the team has played in big stadiums, in front of big crowds, but that playing in Lincoln is simply unique.
“They’re the only game in town, really,” Dantonio said. “In the state of Nebraska, there are no pro sports. That is it. It’s been established. It’s a well-established program from the former years as we just talked about, and I think their people are passionate about it. They grew up young rooting for the University of Nebraska and have stayed the course, so they’re going ot fill their stadium, they’re going to put now 92,000 in there. It’s going to be an exciting crowd. I think they’re football fans. I think they’re good people.”
Around the country, Nebraska football fans have a reputation for being nice individuals – perhaps a more unnerving quality than the usual variety of nasty opposing fans yelling insults.
“They certainly invite you in,” Dantonio added. “They invite you into the lions den. There’s no question. ‘Come on in. There’s plenty of room.'”
In 2011, the last time the Spartans played in Lincoln, they got pounded. Nebraska was ranked No. 14 at the time of the 24-3 beating. In 2012, the teams played in East Lansing, but the 20th-ranked Huskers eked out a 28-24 win.
“In terms of last year, there are a lot of games where we lost the football game but however you want to say it we either ran out of time or we didn’t lose our way,” Dantonio said. “We didn’t lose our way. We lost the game. We didn’t lose our way. We came back with conviction the next week every single time. We played with resiliency.”
Nevertheless, the loss irked the Spartans. After talking about how his team stayed the course, Dantonio seemed to reference some officiating issues, most likely a last-second pass interference call against cornerback Darqueze Dennard that gave Nebraska a new set of downs and provided for a game-winning touchdown pass. Dennard also had an interception return for a touchdown called back.
“The football game last year was difficult to swallow the way it went down at the end, and I’ll leave it at that,” Dantonio said. “There were some different things that went on in the game that were unconventional. I’ll leave it at that.”
Michigan State can boast one of the best defenses in the country, and its offense improved drastically from the beginning of the season. Dantonio said the team is getting close to what it needs to be but is continually looking for ways to progress even further.
“We are always chasing excellence, and there really is no finishing point,” Dantonio said. “Once you accomplish one goal, you look and see, ‘How can we get better?’”
Beating Nebraska would be a good start.