November 13, 2013 at 10:20 am

John Niyo

Spartans know title march must be taken one step at a time

'Just focus on the task at hand,' says quarterback Connor Cook, left, and his coach concurs. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing — The bandwagon is starting to fill up, but the road is clear.

And so is the message this week inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building, where Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has taken his opportunity to remind the players of theirs.

Michigan State can clinch at least a share of the Big Ten Legends Division title — putting a berth in the conference championship game easily within reach — with a victory Saturday at Nebraska.

“That’s something that’s real, that our players can touch, and there should be no lack of motivation,” Dantonio said Tuesday after his team used the bye week following that emotional victory over Michigan to “regroup” and allow “the dust to settle a little bit.”

Now that it has, it’s easy to see what’s at stake: Everything.

Which is another way of saying this team hasn’t accomplished anything yet, I guess. And not coincidentally, that’s something Michigan State’s veteran leaders will be busy preaching all week as well.

“With all our goals still in front of us, yeah, you can kind of peek and be excited a little bit and look ahead a little bit,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “But we’ve just got to stay focused and get that tunnel vision.”

Sure, they see the standings. And yes, they hear the inevitable talk about what’s down the road — specifically, Dec. 7 in Indianapolis — though restricted media access this week is designed to quiet some of that.

But Dennard said he has an easy solution for his teammates. And though it pains me to repeat it, here it is.

“Don’t read the news clippings,” he said, smiling. “That’s all I can say. Just save them right now — you can read them at the end of the season. I tell the guys, ‘Just focus.’ We’ve got this one opportunity. We have a great opportunity in front of us. So just don’t look too far ahead, because that’s what a lot of teams do and they end up slipping or messing up.”

Experience helps

The Spartans really shouldn’t be one of those teams. Not with all their experience. (Fourteen of 22 starters are juniors and seniors who won a Legends Division title in 2011.) And not with the nation’s top-ranked defense. (Some things don’t travel well, but defenses generally do.) And certainly not with the Big Ten looking the way it does right now. (Michigan State is one of just three ranked teams at the moment, and finding a fourth won’t be easy.)

Still, for all its issues this season, including a defense that was abysmal against the run until it ran into Michigan last week, Nebraska (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) sits a game behind Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) in the standings.

Win Saturday, and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game is all but assured for Michigan State, with Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) the only other potential roadblock. Lose, though, and while it’s hardly over, it is out of their hands. Nebraska would have to lose at Penn State or at home against Iowa, while Michigan State (at Northwestern, vs. Minnesota) would need to win out.

So for the Spartans, whose season-long motto has been “Chase it,” the most important thing now is not to get caught looking ahead — “Just focus on the task at hand,” quarterback Connor Cook said — and risk getting caught from behind.

“The bottom can fall out on you at any time if you don’t take care of fundamentals, if you don’t do the little things, if you’re not emotionally ready,” Dantonio said. “Hopefully our players understand that.”

Two years ago, they probably didn’t, Dennard admits. Coming off back-to-back home wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, Michigan State traveled to Lincoln and got embarrassed in 2011, though that 24-3 loss ultimately didn’t cost it the division title.

“We really weren’t focused, didn’t come in and play with the same energy when we went down there,” he said.

This time, Dennard insists, it’ll be different. And really, why shouldn’t it be? Beyond the obvious implications this season, overlooking Nebraska would mean ignoring it’s the one Big Ten opponent Michigan State has yet to beat. (The Spartans are 0-7 against the Cornhuskers, including a pair of losses since they joined the conference in 2011.)

And also ignoring the bitter 2012 defeat at home against Nebraska, a game in which Michigan State was victimized by some poor officiating, including a late pass-interference call on Dennard that set up the winning touchdown for the Cornhuskers.

Tough loss

At the time, Dantonio called it “probably one of the toughest games I’ve experienced.”

Tuesday, he didn’t feel much like talking about it, either, saying it “was difficult to swallow the way it went down at the end — and I’ll leave it at that.”

But this team surely knows they can’t leave it like this. They rebounded from a similar defeat at Notre Dame two months ago with an impressive victory at Iowa. And as the defense has continued to impress, the offense has steadily improved.

Dantonio talked about “gaining momentum,” and he’s right. But as every coach will tell you, especially at the college level, the more you win, the more you worry.

“That’s why we continue to talk about handling success,” said Dantonio, whose teams are 9-2 in November the last four seasons — the lone losses coming last fall when the offense never found a rhythm. “I know that there’s a buzz around because everybody is jumping on the bandwagon a little bit. But you can’t get caught up in that. That’ll drive you down if you listen to it. We’ll try and rise above it.”

If they want to finish on top, the Spartans know they’ll have to.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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