State College, Pa. — A program game.
That's what Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and his players are calling their Big Ten regular-season finale today against Penn State.
But what does that mean? The Spartans can't win the Big Ten title. They can't get into the four-team race for the national championship. So, how much can a win today really do for the program?
■It would secure the fourth double-digit win season in the last five years.
■It would guarantee a berth in an elite and lucrative bowl game.
■It would further stabilize the program's position as a perennial top 10 team.
■It would strengthen the Spartans already solid recruiting niche in the talent-rich state of Pennsylvania.
So, a program game? Maybe not the red-letter type like the last time the Spartans played at Beaver Stadium — in 2010 when they clinched their first Big Ten title share in two decades — but still important in terms of building on the momentum that was started with that win.
"I believe that winning 10 games around here right now is the benchmark," Dantonio said. "Obviously that gets you a little bit of notoriety. … That's what we've been able to traditionally do right now, and it's been a very big thing for this program.
"It puts us in the hunt always to be relevant in terms of the national picture, and certainly to be relevant in the Big Ten picture. I think that's what we're trying to do here, and then springboard from there to great possibilities like last year."
This will be the first time the Spartans have played the Nittany Lions since that 28-22 win in 2010.
"That was a great moment in our time here these last eight years," Dantonio said. "We did it the hard way. It was a cold day. We had to go away to do it, and we got it done. I think when you do things the hard way you have a little bit more appreciation for it. But it was a great moment."
Penn State (6-5, 2-5) is coming off a disheartening loss to Illinois, but it has one of the stingiest defenses in the country. The Nittany Lions allow just 16.2 points and a nation-best 81.7 rushing yards per game.
"They have a really good defense and we want to show we can play against one of the best defenses in the country," Spartans center Jack Allen said. "And we want to send our seniors out the right way with a win in their last Big Ten game."
The Spartans have already established themselves as the most potent offense in school history, setting records for points (483), touchdowns (61) and total offense (5,660 yards). They are one rushing touchdown away from owning that record (38), as well.
It's a far cry from the offensive struggles the program has endured throughout Dantonio's tenure.
"Just experience and going through what we went through and knowing each other better," wide receiver Tony Lippett said. "Just another year being together in this offense. We're more confident and we have a lot of weapons."
"What I saw in 2012, you know, obviously we saw a young (backup) quarterback in Connor Cook that had talent that needed to do grow with experience," he said. "We saw some wide receivers (Lippett, Keith Mumphrey) that I continually said they catch the ball very well. They look the part, they run the part. That's flourished in 2013. I think experience and success really breeds further accomplishments. I think that's what's happened to them."
Although Dantonio would never sell it as such, the game Saturday provides a nice showcase for potential Pennsylanvia-area recruits. Tight end Paul Lang, defensive back Demetrious Cox, running back Delton Williams, quarterback Damion Terry, special teams ace/safety Montae Nicholson and reserve offensive lineman Brandon Clemons are all top recruits pulled from Penn State's backyard.
"I think we want to have a presence in Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania in general," Dantonio said. "We've been able to recruit good players out of there. It's a great state for high school football. I think the Big Ten is in that state, and we've had success bringing guys over here and they've played for us."
The players, though, aren't worried about that. Their focus is on maintaining the program's new standard of excellence — 10-win seasons.
"That's what the coaches have done, that's something we strive for each year," Allen said. "If we don't achieve it, it's almost a letdown."