Spartans crunch Penn State in bid for elite bowl
University Park, Pa. — Michigan State players filed into Beaver Stadium on Saturday wearing baseball caps that bore the inscription, "Program 10 Win."
"Those hats mean a lot more now than when we walked in this morning," coach Mark Dantonio said after the No. 10 Spartans finished the regular season with a 34-10 victory over Penn State.
Mission accomplished? Well, not exactly. But the adjusted mission, the one implemented after the loss to Ohio State, is done and archived.
"The benchmark has become 10-wins seasons at Michigan State," Dantonio said. "We've done it four of the last five years. It's a tremendous accomplishment."
The Spartans finish with a 10-2 record, the sixth double-digit win season in school history, four of them since Dantonio took over the program.
"That just goes to show the kind of staff we have and the kind of players Coach D brings in here," fifth-year senior Marcus Rush said. "Four 10-win seasons; that's unbelievable. We knew as a senior class that we had a good class and we knew we had a good team this year."
The win also virtually assures the Spartans a bid to one of the elite New Year's Six bowls.
"I don't think there is any question whether we'll be chosen," Dantonio said. "After Georgia lost and UCLA lost, we're up there in the top 10 for sure, and that should get us in one of those bowls."
Those bowl pairings will be announced Dec. 7.
The only knock on the Spartans' season: With losses to Ohio State and Oregon, they have not beaten a ranked opponent, something Dantonio addressed after the game.
"We have not beaten a ranked team, but we are 29-0 against unranked teams," he said. "We play who's there."
The Spartans, after a bit of a stutter in the first half, broke open a 13-3 game with two quick scores in the third quarter.
Quarterback Connor Cook set up the first touchdown with a pair of completions totaling 56 yards — 25 to Keith Mumphrey and 31 to Macgarrett Kings Jr. Running back Jeremy Langford finished the drive with a hard-fought, 3-yard run.
The defense got the ball right back. Rush sacked and forced the ball loose from Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Taiwan Jones recovered at the Penn State 18.
On third-and-goal from the 10, Cook connected with Tony Lippett for the touchdown. He would not have gotten the pass off, though, without a head-ups blitz pickup and block by Langford.
"I was talking to Lip about that," Langford said. "I told him, 'Watch the film.' That's what we have to do. We have to come over and get the blitz picked up and not get the quarterback hurt."
Connor finished 13-for-25 for 180 yards. Lippett, who started at cornerback as well as receiver, had four catches for 53 yards. He also played well on defense, breaking up two long pass attempts.
And, yes, Langford continued his amazing streak of 100-yard rushing games. Against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, he was 2 yards short before the Spartans' last possession.
"Somebody on the sideline told me," he said. "But we were winning at the time, so I wasn't really worried about it. I did want to get it, though."
He carried the ball four times for 20 yards on that last possession, capping his 118-yard day with a 6-yard touchdown run. It was his Spartans-record ninth straight game of at least 100 yards rushing. He now has rushed for 100 yards against 15 straight Big Ten opponents in the regular season, 16 straight counting the Big Ten title game.
"It means a lot for our team," Langford said. "It's how hard the offensive line works and the tight ends and fullbacks and it's me just doing my job. It definitely means more when it helps us win games. I feel blessed to be in this situation."
The game started with a bang for the Spartans.
R.J. Shelton returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and the Spartans moved the ball easily in their first two offensive drives — settling for field goals of 36 and 39 yards from Michael Geiger.
"We had talked about how we had to be special on special teams," Dantonio said. "And right off the bat, R.J. Shelton takes the opening kickoff for a touchdown."
It was just the second time since 1945 the Spartans returned an opening kickoff for a score. The other was by Demond Williams in 2005. The Spartans hadn't returned any kickoff for a touchdown since Keshawn Martin in 2009.
Dantonio was asked if he had any preference for the Spartans' upcoming bowl game.
"No," he said, "just somewhere we don't have to wear gloves."