EVANSTON, Ill. - Nearly four months ago, a few miles from here at the Big Ten preseason media days, Mark Dantonio first mentioned a new acronym that had been adopted, printed and posted around the Skandalaris Center, back home in East Lansing.
The letters: P4RB.
"You know what that stands for?" he said, during a roundtable interview on July 29, "Prepare For Rose Bowl."
That was back when Michigan State was 0-0, returning several players from last year's Big Ten championship team but picked by no one to win the conference and earn a trip to Pasadena.
He said everything that players, coaches, trainers, janitors did - from winter conditioning on - was for the purpose of preparing for an opportunity to take Michigan State to its first Rose Bowl since 1987.
A few minutes after Michigan State's 31-17 victory over Northwestern at rainy Ryan Field, Dantonio brought up the acronym to media for the first time since July.
"P4RB," Dantonio said. "Prepare for the Rose Bowl, and that's where we're going. So we'll take the next step. It will be a great challenge next week, but we're in the hunt."
The Spartans, 10-2, have known since Nov. 19 that they will play in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
Tonight, they know they are the outright Legends Division champion, finishing a game ahead of second-place Michigan, which the Spartans defeated, 28-14 on Oct. 15.
Tonight, they also know their opponent in the title game - Wisconsin.
With the regular season completed, the Spartans are officially one of two Big Ten teams standing and will begin gearing up for the title game, which will kick off at 8:17 p.m., next Saturday, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (FOX Sports). The MSU-Wisconsin winner will represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif.
Dantonio and players did not know the outcome of the Wisconsin-Penn State game before they left Evanston, and were unable to comment on the Badgers as a rematch opponent. But senior quarterback Kirk Cousins knew the gravity of the opportunity.
"We're 60 minutes from the Rose Bowl and that's what we talked about last year, that's what we talked about this year at the start of the season," Cousins said. "We're so close. Whoever we play, it's going to be a battle. With a great week of preparation and a great game on Saturday, we can be there."
Cousins broke Michigan State's all-time record for touchdown passes in a career when he threw Nos. 61 and 62 on Saturday, breaking a mark held by Jeff Smoker. But the most important throws of his career are still to come.
"We said it in the locker room just now that the coming week is the most important week of our careers," Cousins said. "Because of all we've accomplished up to this point, we've put ourselves in that position."
The Spartans are the only team in the Big Ten with a 7-1 conference record, finishing with four straight wins and a perfect November.
"We talked about wanting to come down here (to Northwestern) and get this win for many reasons, and one of them certainly is that we have some momentum going into the Championship Game," Cousins said. "It's the type of thing we've been talking about since we finished up last year, talking about the maturity we would have on this team and I think we've shown it every week."
Every week of the calendar year, that is.
"You have winter conditioning, spring football," said junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, "it's the reason why you lace up your cleats, it's the reason why you put your pads on, the countless hours in the weight room, for this one moment. It's the greatest opportunity we've had so we are going to just try to go in there and seize the moment."
Senior B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State's all-time leader in receptions, had a team-high six catches for 120 yards.
"Just getting into this (Big Ten Championship) game is a blessing in itself," Cunningham said. "We work hard for this game, worked hard all camp, call summer, just getting into this game. It's an accomplishment, but we're not done yet.
"We feel like we've got a lot left to do. We have to keep moving, keep playing hard."
'It's The Pinnacle'
When Dantonio recruited Cousins, Cunningham and Saturday's leading tackler, Kevin Pickelman, as underrated high school prospects in 2006, signed them in February of '07 and then redshirted them the following fall, the head coach talked about the Rose Bowl - although it seemed like a distant dream for long-time Spartan fans and players.
"It's what we come here for," Dantonio said following the victory over Northwestern. "It's what you're recruited to do. It's what we preach and talk about in the homes and every day to our football team. It's about what a sign means in our football facility. It's about everything we're trying to achieve, it's about getting to the Rose Bowl. We'll still have a bowl game, so we'll take it step-by-step. But it's what we're trying to do. It's the pinnacle of what we're trying to get to."
Spartan coaches usually break down the previous game's film on Sunday morning, and go over it with players on Sunday afternoon and evening. But Sunday will be all about the Badgers at the Skandalaris Center.
"What we'll do a little bit differently is we won't spend time tomorrow (Sunday) watching this film as a team," Dantonio said. "We're going to get busy with who we play, and that will give us an extra day.
"Other than that, our week will be the same. It will be an away game. We're doing okay, so we'll just keep moving. But we'll have the home jerseys on, I guess, down there, so that will be good."
What Michigan State did this year would have been enough to earn the Rose Bowl bid in every other season in which the Big Ten has sent its champion to the Rose Bowl since 1947. But MSU happened to stage its best conference season in 24 years during the first year of the new, 12-team conference alignment and the debut season of the Big Ten Championship game.
Last year, the Spartans shared a tri-championship in the Big Ten with Wisconsin and Ohio State. Wisconsin was given the Rose Bowl bid based on a higher BCS ranking. Dantonio and the Spartans were frustrated by the fact that they were 1-0 combined against the other two teams that shared the conference title with them, but were not able to settle the overall crown on the field.
Dantonio was asked after the Northwestern game for his feelings about the irony of finishing a game ahead of the pack in the Big Ten this year, but sill needing one more win to get to the Rose Bowl.
"Well," he said with a shrug and a smile, "I was excited at the beginning of the season to being able to settle it on the field and everything. That's where we're at, so why change our mentality now? We were expecting that. You can't worry about what you can't control."
Starting Sunday, they control their preparation with a rematch against Wisconsin, which Michigan State defeated 37-31on Oct. 22.
"Both teams that are going to be at that Championship Game are going to be fired up, because this has never been," said senior safety Trenton Robinson. "Both teams will be fired up and it's going to be a good game."
"We have a big opportunity next week," Worthy said. "We just have to keep pushing."