Niyo: Can't ignore Spartans in Big Ten title chase

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The road to the Big Ten championship still runs through Columbus, where this week’s marquee game between No. 6 Ohio State and No. 2 Penn State already is being billed as a title tilt with national playoff implications.

But the idea that it might yet take a detour through East Lansing, where Michigan State — a team that finished 3-9 a year ago — improved to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play Saturday, well, even the Spartans can admit that’s a bit of a surprise.

“We’re somewhere nobody expected us to be,” senior co-captain Brian Allen said. “Even people who are Spartan fans expected none of this, so we’re just happy with where we’re at.

More: Michigan: Five things we learned vs. Penn State

Happy to be bowl-eligible again, for one thing, after missing out last winter for the first time in Mark Dantonio’s 10-year tenure as head coach at Michigan State. Dantonio even brought a bowling ball into the team’s locker room this week as a reminder. And after Saturday’s late rally for a 17-9 victory over Indiana, quarterback Brian Lewerke said the team planned to sign the ball on Monday, then keep rolling, trying to finish an undefeated October for the fourth time in five years.

“That was the goal when we started,” Dantonio said, well aware that the Spartans’ next game — at Northwestern — could look a lot like Saturday’s struggle with the Hoosiers. “And then after that, we play on.”

Script flipped

They all will, though, on one side of the conference, the title chase seems a mere formality, as No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0) effectively holds a three-game lead over Northwestern and Nebraska in the Big Ten’s West division

In the East, everything’s still up for grabs, with the last three division champs — the last three conference champs, for that matter — all tied atop the standings at 4-0 in league play. Penn State travels to face Ohio State this week, then plays at Michigan State on Nov. 4, the week before the Spartans travel to Columbus. That round-robin may not decide the champ, but it’ll surely go a long way in doing so.

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, losses to Michigan State and Penn State in the last three weeks would seem to leave Michigan playing the role of spoiler from here on out. Of course, that’s not what they were telling themselves as the clock wound down on a humbling, 42-13 loss in Happy Valley late Saturday night.

“Some of us were talking about it on the sideline near the end of the game,” quarterback John O’Korn said. “Last year at this point, Penn State was — me growing up here, I thought that was one of the worst Penn State teams I’ve ever seen — and they went on and should have won the Rose Bowl.”

More: ​Charboneau: Rising Rutgers tied with sinking Michigan in Big Ten East

Indeed, that Penn State team rebounded from a 49-10 thrashing in Ann Arbor last season and won its final seven games to win the Big Ten East, then knocked off Wisconsin in the conference championship game to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl, where James Franklin’s team lost a 52-49 thriller to USC.

But the parallels are harder to draw now, since this Penn State-Michigan game came a month later in the calendar. And it’s worth noting that since the Big Ten split into two divisions in 2010, no team has won Michigan’s side — first the Legends, and now the East — with more than one conference loss.

Still, as Michigan’s Karan Higdon said, “College football is funky. Crazy things happen all the time.”

Below the radar

That’s just fine by the Spartans, who certainly don’t mind playing the underdog role down the stretch.

Penn State has the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in Saquon Barkley and the nation’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense. Ohio State has the country’s top scoring offense (47.3 points per game) and a head coach who is 43-2 in conference play the last 51/2 seasons. Both teams have vastly more experience up and down their two-deep roster than Michigan State.

More:  ​Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Indiana

But what the Spartans have is the only real necessity here: an opportunity. And for a young team that came into this season with plenty to prove, the last few weeks have done wonders in building confidence.

“Because we found a way to win, and that’s what good football teams do,” Dantonio said. “You could really look at us as a program, over the last number of years and when we’ve had big years, we found a way to win close games. You can go back and look at the games that we won in ’13, or the games we won in ’14 or ’15 and we just found a way to win. There’s something to that.”

And isn’t this something? A year ago, Michigan State’s season was slip-sliding away. Now they’re back in the title hunt.

“Yeah,” laughed Lewerke, shaking his head at the turnaround. “That’s crazy.”