EAST LANSING - Michigan State is one win away from its second consecutive Big Ten football championship and its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 season.
That is no accident. It is the product of hard work, outstanding player evaluation, player development, and routinely talking about program goals, even when those goals seem out of reach.
"I believe if you want a dream and you dream big, you've got to talk about it," said Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio. "You can't ignore the fact and say well, we didn't go. We didn't talk about it enough or I didn't want to put our guys out there. There is risk and reward in everything that we do, whether it's a particular play or blitz or whatever there is. I would say the same thing when you're challenging your players and talking with them. There is risk involved in talking with them about dreams as big as a Rose Bowl or dreams as big as a National Championship. But if you don't do that, who will? Certainly nobody sitting in this room did five years ago, but here we're all sitting here talking about it. So somebody had to step out and talk about it from within."
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The Spartans have been close to earning a trip to the Rose Bowl during three of head coach Mark Dantonio's first five seasons at Michigan State. Michigan State came up short in a three-way tie-breaker with Wisconsin and Ohio State last season.
Wisconsin trumped the Spartans and Buckeyes in the final BCS ranking of the three Big Ten teams to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl, despite having lost to Michigan State during Big Ten play.
Two seasons earlier in 2008, Michigan State's Rose Bowl aspirations were intact heading into the Big Ten finale at Penn State. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan State decisively at home to punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl.
This weekend's Big Ten Championship Game offers the Spartans their third opportunity to capture a bid to play in the Rose Bowl. It is also Michigan State's best chance to earn a coveted trip to Pasadena.
"It is very exciting for us," said Dantonio. "It's one of those one shot things. We are going to give our best shot. I'm sure they are too. That's what's so exciting about this championship type format is whatever you've done up until this point, it's on a resume and you can talk about it. But you're going to play in this particular game and have an opportunity to settle in on the field. So two teams that are tied like last year, and I understand this year it might have gone our way because we've got the one loss. But, in the end, this is probably the best way to decide a football game or who is going to represent the Big Ten.
"I think our players are going to be emotionally ready to play, got to stay loose and do all the things we've done in order to get to this point. But we've proven we can go and play in big games and win. We've proven we can go on the road and win. It will be a great challenge for us. I understand that, all of our players understand that. But we have a great football team. We have an outstanding football team, and our confidence is there. We have a lot of confidence as a football team, and we have confidence in the players rising to the occasion as well and playing through adversity."
Both Dantonio and his counterpart at Wisconsin, Bret Bielema, have been out front with their belief that Michigan State and Wisconsin are the two best teams in the Big Ten. While that may be, the loser of Saturday night's championship game will likely find themselves skipped over for an at-large berth in a BCS Bowl by a lesser team from their own conference.
"I've figured out in my time in my life that there are certain things you can change and certain things that that's just the way it is," said Dantonio. "Why worry about it? It just creates problems if you worry about that. So I really haven't focused on that. I've focused on the task at hand and winning this football game. That is all that's important to us right now. I'm not going to look to the right or to the left like I've come in here before and said. I'm going to look straight ahead and focus on that challenge, defeat that challenge, and move forward. For us to look over here and over there and say we'll worry about this team going instead of us or this team or whatever, or why aren't we doing this, then I think the best thing you can do in any profession or anything in life is really just deal with the problems that you have and try to address those problems. Put all your focus there, and you have a better chance of accomplishing your dreams and goals. So that's what we've done.
"I think our players have done that as well, and I think they've got a good handle on that and how to try to take the next step. We lost to Nebraska. We can't deal with Nebraska. The best thing we can do is go on and play well for the next team and that's what we were able to do."
Michigan State enters the Big Ten Championship Game ranked No. 11/No. 9 in polls and No. 13 in the BCS Rankings. Wisconsin is ranked No. 15/No. 12 and No. 16 in the BCS. The Spartans have beaten Wisconsin three out of the last four times the two teams have played. Despite that, Wisconsin remains a 9.5 point favorite in Las Vegas.
"I think a lot of it tends to be what they were, what the perspective was maybe coming into the season," said Dantonio. "They were number four at one point in time until they lost to us, I believe, and so that's the way it goes. There are certain things you can change sometimes. Certain things you have to continue to earn. We'll do it the hard way."
During the Big Ten Championship coaches conference call on Sunday, Dantonio said that his team would need to do a better job stopping the run in the rematch against the Badgers than they did during a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 22.
"There is always a concerted effort to limit a team's ability to run the football," said Dantonio, whose team ranks No. 11 in college football and first in the Big Ten in rush defense allowing 102.5 yards on the ground per game. "(Montee) Ball is a great player. Last year James White had a big game against us, so they are both very good tailbacks. Ball, obviously, has the most pub right now with the most carries, most yards, most touchdowns."
Ball has rushed for 1,622 yards with 29 touchdowns on 248 carries. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior ranks third in the FBS with an average of 135.2 rushing yards per game. Ball is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in 2011.
"He is a jump-cut runner, a spin runner, very quick to contact," Dantonio said. "He has great acceleration, he can catch the ball as well. He is a great threat."
Michigan State and Wisconsin have each played five games since they played at Spartan Stadium in late October. Dantonio and his staff are approaching preparation for their rematch with Wisconsin much the same way as they did during first meeting between the two schools aside from a couple of twists to help simulate playing indoors at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We're going to turn up the heat in the indoor, so that's a good thing," Dantonio said. "We're going to do some different things as we get down there, I think. But at the same time we want to keep it as normal as we can. It's a big deal and it's very exciting. But at the same time, we have to stay controlled. It has to be controlled excitement and controlled emotion. We need to get ready to play a football game. So it needs to be a little bit right now business as usual.
"We played this team in the seventh week. They've played five games; we've played five. So we'll look at the past five games as well. We'll look at the previous seven and all different angles to this game. How they played us the last five times they've played us. So there is a lot of time spent looking at what they do. But inevitably they'll probably change and do something different and we've got to adjust.
"I think the best thing we can do is stay focused, as I just said. Change up things that keep us fresh. I think it's important that we stay fresh. It's a long season. Going into our 13th week plus two a days, so it's been a long time. Stay fresh, stay excited and understand there is going to be adversity, understand we're going to have to weather the adversity and push through that."
Dantonio does not believing that having a program goal like the Rose Bowl within reach will distract his team from the process of preparing for the challenge they will face in Indianapolis this weekend.
"I would say our football team and our program probably shares about the same type of emotions that I'm having probably focus. When we get there, and we will get there, off the field, a great deal of satisfaction. That's just the way I'm built. I was excited last Saturday. I'll be very satisfied and content and feel like job accomplished. What is the next goal? What is the next focus? That's just the way we've been doing things here. We're very excited to share the emotion, but that will pass and it will be the next thing. It's the same way when we won the National Championship. It was very exciting, and felt a great deal of contentment and satisfaction, but a week later you were recruiting and you were on to the next thing.
"I think that is the norm here for everybody. You don't have long to sort of sit there and say, wow, I did this and here I am. You move on. You tend to move on and say what's the next job? In this game of college football, it's "what have you done for me lately" and you see that every year. This is a tough week for a lot of families right now. There are quite a few jobs that are open. So you understand that as a college coach and you recognize that and you move forward. I will be excited, I promise you that, but we'll bring it back in and refocus and do it again."