INDIANAPOLIS - Michigan State players took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium for a late-week practice walk-through, Friday, with looseness and smiles.
"We hopefully pride ourselves in staying fresh and having fun," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said during Friday's final press conference prior to the game. "I want to make this an experience they'll remember for a lifetime. So that's what we intend to do."
Michigan State, 10-2 and the only team in the conference to post a 7-1 record during the regular season, will serve as Legends Division champion when the Spartans play Leaders Division champion Wisconsin (10-2) in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, at 8:17 p.m. on Saturday (FOX).
"The city of Indianapolis is a tremendous place to host this, and this is an unbelievable environment and atmosphere that we'll play in tomorrow night will be tremendous. We want to congratulate the University of Wisconsin on being here, being the champions of the Leaders Division, and to me this is an event that will take on national prominence as we move forward in the future."
Michigan State is trying to earn its first Rose Bowl bid since the 1987 season.
"I constantly talk about pressure is good," Dantonio said. "I think you can succeed with pressure. It makes you have a greater attention to detail. You're more focused. Stress is is the enemy. So we don't want to stress out about this. We want to just play. Follow our leaders on the field, and all come together and have a great experience, and ultimately that involves winning.
"But we certainly want to come here and remember this for the rest of our lives. So I'm glad you saw some smiles."
Dantonio was asked if he drew upon his experience as being defensive coordinator of Ohio State for the 2002 National Championship game in preparation for the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game.
"We really did not because we had a week to prepare, so we try to keep this as an away game in a lot of ways," Dantonio said. "I have reflected on that week because this is an exciting week, much like that one was, with the media attention and things we're dealing with at that time. So there's been a reflection there.
"But we've been able to pretty much keep this pretty much normal as a football program. We had a conference call on Sunday. We had our players with FOX on Monday. We had a normal Tuesday just like a normal Tuesday back in East Lansing, then we sort of cut it off.
We've had great practices.
"Our players understand the challenge they have, a tremendous challenge with the University of Wisconsin, but they also understand we've won before and that brings a great deal of confidence to our program."
It will be Michigan State's third night game of the year.
"It will pretty much be the same in terms of how we do things (on a regular Friday night)," Dantonio said. "We'll have meetings back there at 5:30 and 6:00 and a meal. It's one of the highlights for me of the entire week because we just sit there with our players and basically talk. Just sort of hang out and talk about all different types of things.
"So it's been something we've done since 2007. It's very at ease. Everybody's very at ease with each other. We just sort of calm down a little bit and deflate a little bit. So it's good for our entire football team.So that's what we do.
"After that we go watch a movie together. I don't know if we're seeing Home Alone tonight or whatever. But it will be something that brings hopefully something back from their childhood, and that seems to help them. We want them all to watch it together just to be with people.
"My belief is if you get yourself ready, you affect one person. If you get 10 people ready, then 10 people are going to get you ready so, it's sort of multiplies like that for us.
"So we work on each other and make sure we're all in the right frame of mind and protect each other in what we're trying to accomplish."
Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson had his worst game of the season when MSU and Wisconsin met three weeks ago. He has thrown only three interceptions all season, but two of them were against the Spartans. He also missed two open receivers on throwback/sneak routes that should have, could have went for TDs.
Wilson will try to do better from the pocket. Meanwhile, MSU will try to do better in limiting his play-making ability on "loose" plays such as scramble-to-pass opportunities.
"When we have trapped him in there, he's found a way to make a play at times," Dantonio said. "I think one of the biggest things we'll have to do as a defense tomorrow is he's going to get loose at some point. He's going to make great plays and take a bad play and get out of a sack situation. We've got to play the ball in the deep part of the field off the quarterback scramble. So when it does become like a pick‑up game or like flag football where the guy's running all over the place and the receivers are breaking the routes, we have to maintain our coverage and be able to cover.
"Last time we played them, the one that got him back in the game was off the scramble where he was able to find a guy and we didn't maintain coverage on him.
"So we've got to be able to do that. We've worked at that, but those are broken plays, and sometimes he has the ability to create. So we've got to be able to fundamentally play our rules. We have rules within our coverages of when the quarterback scrambles. We do these different things. We have to play within those rules to make the play."
Fridays With Izzo
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo is in Indianapolis 24 hours ahead of kickoff (well, he has some recruiting to do in the area on Friday night, with Gary Harris playing in the area).
"Spent time with Coach Izzo this morning," Dantonio said on Friday. "I've spent time with him all week. He's a very good friend of mine."
And Izzo has had some success in Indy. His Spartans won the 2000 National Championship in Indianapolis at the old Hoosier Dome. In 2009, the Spartans defeated Kansas and Louisville at Lucas Oil Stadium in the NCAA Regionals in order to advance to the Final Four at Ford Field.
In 2010, Izzo's team wasn't quite as fortunate, losing in the last minute to Butler in the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. But Izzo and MSU basketball have had some good times in Indianapolis, including the Spartans' victory over Notre Dame in the 1979 Regional Final at the old Market Square Arena.
"They've been down here so many times and I've been down to watch them," Dantonio said of Izzo and the MSU basketball team in Indy, "whether it's the Big Ten tournaments or whether it's been the Final Fours, and this is an unbelievable city.
"This is a great city to host something like this because it has such a vibrant downtown area and there are so many different things that offer the people coming from both schools or all schools, so tremendous venue. And then as far as this place, all I can do is really say is, wow, when you walk in because it's pretty spectacular."
Lewis, Back Home Again In Indiana
Saturday's game will mark a homecoming of sorts for MSU sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis, of Indianapolis Ben Davis High School.
Lewis, a four-star recruit who was listed in the Rivals250 before missing most of his senior year in high school to a knee injury, committed to Dantonio and MSU in the summer after his junior year, over Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and others. He also had an early scholarship offer from Wisconsin.
At the time, he said he wanted to play for MSU, among other reasons, because the Spartans were a winner. This was a curious and optimistic viewpoint, especially for an out-of-state player, as MSU had enjoyed only one strong season under Dantonio to that point, the 2008 season in which the Spartans played for the Big Ten title on the last day of the season.
Since Lewis arrived, however, he has been a part of a 2010 Big Ten title team, and a 2011 Legends Division championship team, going for more.
"Isaiah Lewis to me is one of those guys that can take over a football game and be an impact player," Dantonio said. "He's an outstanding football player and person. He prepares very hard. You have to pull him back in practice because he's going to go a hundred percent in practice and go after somebody, so you have to pull him off a little bit."
Lewis earned second-team All-Big Ten honors this year from coaches and media. He is one of 11 players in the country to return two interceptions for TDs this year.
"There is no question he is one of our finest football players as a sophomore, and he has great things in store for him as a player in this league and then as a future beyond this league," Dantonio said. "Tackles, great ball skills, great playability, and he will make some great plays out there tomorrow night. I think it's tremendous that he's able to come back to Indianapolis after being from Ben Davis High School and starring there to be a part of this."
The Gholston Factor
Sophomore defensive end William Gholston was suspended for the first meeting between Michigan State and Wisconsin due to punching Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan. Gholston is one of the top run-stopping defensive ends in the country and Dantonio figures his presence will be a positive on Saturday.
"With Will Gholston, he's a bigger guy," Dantonio said. "He's 6'6" plus, 280 pounds, he has extremely long arms. So from just a passer standpoint, it's going to be more difficult to throw over him, I would think.
"He plays extremely hard, he'll be very motivated to play. Obviously he can track people down. He's an outstanding football player.
"When you're a dominant player and an impact player, you need to take over a football game somewhat. So whether he takes it over or not, I'm not sure. He's only a sophomore. He has the ability to have huge plays and create a lot of problems for an offense."
Notes And Quotes
Dantonio on placing roses around the locker room this week: "We've always had subliminal messages to our players in our football program. We've got Rose Bowl things up around our facility. Felt it was something we should do this week is to put a rose in everybody's locker to just continually remind them about what we're trying to accomplish."
The symbolism doesn't end there.
"Coach Staten (MSU's offensive line coach) was out there recruiting in the summer, and he brought back a bunch of rocks from the Rose Bowl," Dantonio said. "So we broke them up and gave everybody a little rock. So we'll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them."
Dantonio said he likes the improvement his team's running attack has made in recent weeks. "If we get creases, those things could happen for us. I feel better in this past month at doing that than we have previously in the middle of the month. But we've got to stay balanced. Probably one of the biggest things are we've got to have great ball security."
In the first meeting, starting RB Edwin Baker fumbled on MSU's first offensive play of the game, helping set up Wisconsin with a 14-0 lead.
"We've got to get our good players and our tailbacks touches in space so that they can create plays," Dantonio said.
Dantonio on being an underdog: "I think we're changing perceptions as we go. We are the winningest program in the last four years in terms of Big Ten Conference games. We're 24‑8. We're 14‑2 as a program in the Big Ten Conference in the last two years. So hopefully we're erasing that thought process a little bit.
"As far as being underdogs, we've been underdogs in five or six games this year. So it really, we're sort of unfazed by it. Don't worry about the so‑called experts. The experts are in that locker room and we're the coaches. We're the people that study that film, and go out and play it and live it, and Wisconsin's locker room, they're the experts. So the match‑ups are there. We understand the match‑ups and we understand each other very well."