Spartans inherit spoiler role in Big Ten East

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — On Saturday afternoon, Michigan State’s players celebrated in the locker room at Spartan Stadium.

It’s something the Spartans have done often over the last 10 seasons, many times dancing with a conference championship trophy or something more sentimental like the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

But after a 49-0 victory over Rutgers, it was a celebration that might have carried just as much relief. After all, it was Michigan State’s first Big Ten victory this season and it ended seven-game skid that dated back to the conference opener against Wisconsin on Sept. 24.

Coach Mark Dantonio said his team crawled out from under a rock with the victory and they relished the feeling as they rejoiced in the locker room.

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“It’s been seven weeks since we won, that’s hard on people,” Dantonio said. “That’s hard on everybody at the baseline of this program. That’s coaches, that’s administrators, that’s players in particular. So just playing well, as well as we did. It was good for our football team, we sort of got over the hump there, and you hope that that pays dividends moving forward here these next two weeks.”

No, there will be no championships this season at Michigan State. Its quest to win back-to-back Big Ten titles proved to be fruitless weeks ago. But now the Spartans find themselves in an interesting position with just two weeks left in the regular season.

While they can’t win a championship, they’ll still be right in the thick of the race and might just play a remarkably critical role in which team might ultimately win the title. That’s because the Spartans happen to face two of the three teams still alive in the East Division — Ohio State and Penn State.

The Buckeyes visit East Lansing next week before Michigan State hits the road to take on the Nittany Lions the following week to close the season.

Both teams are battling Michigan for the right to get to Indianapolis and play in the Big Ten Championship game, and a spot in the playoffs could come next. And to be quite frank, both teams are expected to beat the Spartans.

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But that’s where Michigan State could make things interesting as the role of a spoiler. A Michigan State upset in either game would have significant ramifications.

A win over the Buckeyes would not only be devastating for an Ohio State team that is tired of Michigan State ruining its seasons, but it would knock the Buckeyes out of the race in the East and likely the playoffs. A win over Penn State would absolutely end any hopes of either for the Nittany Lions.

While it’s not what the Spartans hoped to be playing for when the season began, it’s better than simply playing out the string and looking to next season. And for Dantonio, it’s just one of the things they’ve got their minds on the final two weeks.

“We come to compete in every game first of all, but we have reasons to play,” Dantonio said. “Even if it’s in a spoiler fashion. But, you know, Nebraska went to a bowl game last year at 5-7, so there are possibilities as we go forward and I think that as we look at who we’re playing — two very good football teams, two top-10 football teams — we got our work cut out for us as we always do, but we got every reason to play.

“Just the way we’ve performed this year, we’ve come to play every single football game, so it’s unfortunate where we’re at but you can’t look past it, you can’t look backward here you have to look to the future. Ohio State is a big game for us, for this program and always has been, a lot of guys from Ohio, so it’s a special game in that respect. We’ll get ready to play.”