Coach Mark Dantonio and Michigan State are on the brink of the Big Ten championship game. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
What a long, strange, dizzying, sweaty, perplexing, gratifying journey it’s been. When Michigan State began the season a few months ago, it was a one-dimensional squad determined to win every game 6-3, unless conditions were sloppy and it had to be 3-0.
Now look where the Spartans are, headed to a place few teams go. As I’ve always said, the Big Ten championship historically goes straight through Evanston, Ill., with a subsequent stop in Indianapolis. And even if I’ve never technically said that, I’ve always imagined it.
This is undoubtedly the biggest game in Big Ten history between teams on a six-game winning streak and a six-game losing streak. Michigan State is 9-1, undefeated in the conference and ready to clinch. Northwestern is 4-6, winless in the conference and ready for the chemistry lab. So you think there’s a teensy chance the Spartans might overlook their opponent and stay up until 3 a.m. Saturday playing video games and ordering loaded potato skins from room service?
Nope. Michigan State has come too far to stumble now, or next week against mighty Minnesota. If the Spartans are going to get exposed, darn it, it won’t be until the championship game against Ohio State.
This season has provided unique challenges and Mark Dantonio has done such a masterful job, he’s about due for an endearing nickname. Biggie, Miggy, Duffy, Muffy, Bobby, Muddy and John L. have been used and Coach D sounds a bit stiff, so this will take some work.
But give the guy credit. Early on, he had to make sure his talented defense didn’t order a Code Green (you don’t want to know) on his discombobulated offense. Then, every time you thought the Spartans might wobble, Shilique Calhoun disemboweled a quarterback and scored a touchdown.
Once the receivers’ hands thawed and Connor Cook started completing passes, all the Spartans had to do was churn through the sludge of the Legionnaires Division. It’s an historic run because this is the last time they get to win a division that doesn’t include the Buckeyes, before realignment. It’s their best chance to return to that mythical place called Pasadena (Note to Michigan State: It’s just west of Orlando), and they’re taking nothing for granted.
Of course, they could take the poor Wildcats for granted, if they wished. Northwestern is so smart, it actually concocts ingenious ways to lose. Pedestrian methods such as Hail Marys and devastating injuries aren’t good enough for them. Last week, Michigan scored on a last-second field goal in which the holder somersaulted onto the field just in time for the kicker to pirouette and boot the wet ball. The Wildcats were so proud of themselves, they declined to play defense in overtime.
Last year, Michigan State dropped a ton of close games. This year, Northwestern adopted the controversial practice. According to my math, the Wildcats have lost six games by a combined 3˝points, which almost seems impossible.
They say a wounded ’Cat is a dangerous cat but the Spartans don’t treat wounds — they cause them! This is one lean mean serene Green machine that doesn’t just out-stick you, it out-tricks you, which is even meaner.
Dantonio dug up another fake field goal to stun Nebraska, which was so clever, Lions coach Jim Schwartz tried it against the Steelers the next day, with slightly different results. Coincidence? Not if you believe this fabricated conversation between Dantonio and Schwartz that I secretly recorded.
Schwartz: “That was great, Mark. What do you call that?”
Dantonio: “It’s our Charlie Brown play.”
Schwartz: “Heck, we’ve run lots of Charlie Brown plays here.”
Dantonio: “We’re saving Lucy and Linus for the big games. But it’s kind of risky, so you can’t be scared.”
Schwartz: “Scared? I ain’t scared! Who says I’m scared?! Tell me who said it?! Was it Harbaugh?? WHO?! I’ll kick his (bad word)!!”
The Spartans aren’t afraid of anything, maybe not even the Buckeyes. These battles with the Wildcats are always kind of goofy, so they need to be careful. But like I said, Charlie Brown has come too far to be duped now, no matter how many Lucys lurk on the other side.
Pick: Michigan State 20-10
Michigan at Iowa: The Wolverines have stopped running backward, but it’s unclear if they’re ready to move forward. It’ll be cold and blustery, perfect conditions for them to average upwards of 1.9 yards per carry. I’m not making any threats here, but they’d better not blow a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Parmesan garlic sauce, mmm). Iowa 16-13
Indiana at Ohio State: The Big Ten is so bad, the Buckeyes could win by nine touchdowns and duct-tape the Hoosiers to the goalposts and still plummet in the rankings. Undaunted, Urban Meyer desperately wants a chance to get smushed by Alabama and keeps begging for attention, something he does pretty well. Ohio State 59-17
Wisconsin at Minnesota: The Gophers (8-2) have had a magical season, and by “magical,” I mean, “semi-watchable.” As further illustration of the Legionnaires Division’s abject lousiness, Minnesota is the only team left to challenge Michigan State. Uh, was the only team left. Wisconsin 33-21
Illinois at Purdue: The Boilermakers (1-9) are making a run at the coveted title of Worst Team in State of Indiana History. They have a shot because the Hoosiers and Irish disqualified themselves, and the Illini has lost 20 straight Big Ten games and are favored by a touchdown. Illinois 37-13