East Lansing — Michigan State has essentially been in playoff mode for nearly a month, so there’s no sense in changing things now.
The Spartans reached the Big Ten Championship game by beating Penn State on Saturday, but from the moment they lost at Nebraska on Nov. 7, the Spartans have known there is no margin for error.
It took a win at home against Maryland followed by one of the most impressive victories from any team in the nation this year — an upset of Ohio State on the road. Then came the blowout of Penn State on Senior Day to set up the meeting with unbeaten Iowa in Indianapolis on Saturday.
The third trip to the Big Ten title game in five years wouldn’t have been possible with another loss, so the Spartans will take the same approach this week they have all season.
“We’ll treat it like an away game,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’ll do what we do. I think there is a system in place, a process in place for us to be able to do what we do in terms of preparation. We’ll work as we speak here, and do the job to the best of our ability.”
No. 5 Michigan State will be preparing for an Iowa team that hasn’t lost all season and is playing with as much confidence as any team in the country.
However, this is the first trip to the conference championship game for the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes while it has become old hat for the Spartans to play at Lucas Oil Stadium. Michigan State lost to Wisconsin in the inaugural game in 2011 before beating Ohio State in 2013 on its way to the Rose Bowl.
A big chunk of this year’s fifth-year seniors have been part of two trips to Indy, and that alone could be a plus for Michigan State.
“I do think that there is an advantage having gone through this before,” Dantonio said. “We’ve got guys who were redshirted in 2011 who were at the Wisconsin game, and they were playing in the game in 2013. We’ve got guys that this is their third time down there. I think that’s a plus for us, at least in knowing the environment, at least knowing what to expect a little bit.
“Everything is going to be a little different. They’re in different roles, I guess you’d say, more leadership roles, more defined roles.”
Plenty of this year’s seniors played key roles in the win in 2013. Connor Cook was in the midst of a breakout season as Michigan State’s starter while defensive end Shilique Calhoun was having a season that ended with him being named the Big Ten’s top defensive lineman.
He and the rest of the defense will be without Pat Narduzzi, their defensive coordinator the past two trips to Indianapolis. But that doesn’t mean the current Pittsburgh coach won’t be helping out.
One of Iowa’s big wins early in the season came against Pittsburgh on a last-second field goal, and Dantonio said he would certainly be picking the brain of his former assistant on creating a plan to face Iowa.
“Absolutely, we will,” Dantonio said. “It has probably already been done. Anybody that we know that has played against them, that we know well, we’ll be talking with. I think that is part of the trade, trade secrets I guess.”
While Michigan State and Iowa haven’t played since 2013 — that was a 26-14 win for Michigan State when Cook established himself as MSU’s starter — there is certainly a familiarity. That’s because the teams aren’t that different.
“They’re a real physical team defensively,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Michigan State. “They’re very tough to run and throw against, and I think that’s kind of been a cornerstone of their program. They’re a physical football team offensively, they run the ball very, very well. They throw it well, especially now with Connor Cook at quarterback.
“So in theory, that’s what we’re trying to do, too. We’ve always felt like defense is a very important thing and then we try to be a team that can be balanced offensively as well. We’ve had pretty good success with that this year. So yeah I think there are a lot of parallels, a lot of differences too, but a lot of parallels.”
Michigan State might see a similar team on Saturday, but it also feels like it’s in perfect position to attain the next goal on its list — a Big Ten championship.
After a season full of injuries and uncertainty, the Spartans feel it’s all coming together.
“Hopefully we are meshing at the right time,” Dantonio said. “I am very proud of our football team and the way we have handled adversity throughout this season thus far. There is going to be more to come, and how we handle it will define us even further.
“At this point, we’ve gotten up off the mat after Nebraska. We’ve played through injuries. We played down the stretch, and won some close games. We haven’t given up on each other.”