EAST LANSING - For the first time since the late 1990s, the season-ending Michigan State vs. Penn State game will be played Thanksgiving weekend. And with it comes a few alterations to the weekly practice and preparation schedule.
"It's a little bit of a distraction, but maybe that's a good things sometimes too," head coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night during his weekly briefing. "It's a change-up. We'll see how we play."
The Spartans (10-1 and ranked No. 10 in the new BCS standings) can clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a victory at Penn State on Saturday. Kickoff is at noon.
Michigan State has an outside shot at the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans win and Michigan knocks off Ohio State, Michigan State would head to Pasadena.
But before thinking about New Year's Day, Michigan State needs to successfully tackle this week's holiday.
"We'll allow our players to go home," Dantonio said. "It's Thanksgiving. Guys that live within two hours certainly should be able to make it home. We'll practice late morning, Thursday. They should be off in the afternoon. We'll all come back and get in there around 10:30 (a.m.) or so on Friday and get ready to travel.
"So we'll get focused, and players are in, watching films (right now, Sunday at 6 p.m.), lifting and such and we'll get ready to go."
All guts, all glory
A little more than 24 hours after Michigan State's 35-31, comeback victory over Purdue, Dantonio was asked where the performance of quarterback Kirk Cousins ranked among the guttiest performances the coach has witnessed.
"Oh it's up there," Dantonio said. "It's up there. He's doing the things Craig Krenzel did (at Ohio State) in 2002, and that's exactly what happened."
Cousins, playing on a sprained ankle and sprained shoulder, bounced back from a first-quarter pick-six to help Michigan State come back from a 15-point deficit and out-score Purdue 22-3 in the fourth quarter.
Cousins, who could barely scramble and couldn't plant and pivot to throw due to the ankle, was operating without much of a running game and had to ignore the fact that he was facing the Big Ten's best pass rush. Still, he threw two TD passes, ran for another, and completed a 2-point conversion in the final 12 minutes.
"Certainly a very exciting fourth quarter and when I look at it, three touchdowns in 11 offensive plays, big interceptions with Chris L. Rucker's interception, and the blocked punt, the interception and the 2-point conversion," Dantonio said. "A lot of guys making a lot of plays down the stretch."
Back in the summer, Dantonio said this year's Spartan team reminded him of the 2002 National Championship Ohio State Buckeyes, for which Dantonio served as defensive coordinator. Eleven games into the season, Dantonio sees continued similarities.
"If you compare the teams, the 2002 team beat Purdue 10-9," Dantonio said. "We had some very, very close games and great plays at the end, winning games and I think that's the same thing you're seeing here.
"I think special teams have been very, very important to us. The blocked punt by Denicos Allen is a tremendous play. The punt return by Keshawn Martin against Wisconsin helped get that win. A lot of people stop talking about that these days, but nevertheless we are the only team that beat Wisconsin, so I'll talk about it.
"But if you look at that and look at the two trick plays on special teams, those are big plays that really sort of light a little bit of a fire under us emotionally and we played through and get the win. It takes all different types of plays throughout the season to have a great season, but 10-1 right now, that's exciting. It puts our seniors over the hump a little bit in terms of that four-year period that we talked about. What a way to go out, the last game, it will be special."
As for Cousins, Dantonio said there were plans to lighten the quarterback's load this week, but he can't sit out entirely.
"We are not going to push him into a position where he is going to practice hurt," Dantonio said. "So we will see where he is on Tuesday. We will back off of some things, I'm sure. But at the same time, just from a timing standpoint, he has to do certain things. We are at the 12th week of the season so it's important that we go there healthy and energized and ready to play. That is as important as anything."
'We were picked seventh'
Dantonio doesn't seem bothered that Michigan State is routinely listed behind fellow one-loss Big Ten teams Wisconsin and Ohio State in every tangible ranking.
"I try to deal with people here (rather than nationally), because I think we live in a very fickle world," Dantonio said. "I think we live in a world that is always changing. Like I said Saturday at the press conference, you can be cheering one minute and upset the next. But that's the world we live in.
"I want to remind everybody we were picked seventh in the conference coming into the season. In the conference. So we are over-achieving, and that's what's important. We are playing above our abilities. I think if everybody does that, you have a great football team. I don't think you can play to your abilities and be a great football team, you have to play above. And I think we're doing that, and we are finding a way.
"When you look around at the history here and really across this country there really are not a lot of 10-1 teams right now."
When Michigan State was unbeaten and ranked in the Top 10 in the BCS standings, Dantonio said he didn't watch the weekly BCS rankings announcement shows. That changed this week.
"I did watch the BCS show today," he said with a smile. "We're No. 10. Wisconsin is No. 7 and Ohio State No. 8. It's getting close. It's getting closer. To go over and play at Penn State, we have to win, there is no question about that. They are a good football team. They have some wins under their belt. Playing there is difficult, so hopefully people will recognize that, should we win. We go over there planning on it."
Penn State will have the unusual role of being a spoiler this weekend. Purdue historically thrives in that capacity, and almost pulled off the upset in Spartan Stadium on Saturday.
"Credit Purdue," Dantonio said. "They came to play. Everybody is going to play well when they have the chance to be the spoiler. And you see that as you watch teams across the nation. You saw Cal almost knock Oregon off the week before, you saw Texas A&M knock Nebraska off. So when you have a chance to do those things, people are going to come to play. Football at this level is very competitive and the difference between winning and losing is about that much."
After Saturday's game, Dantonio was asked if he would be rooting for Iowa or Ohio State. Common logic would dictate that Dantonio would root for Iowa, because a Hawkeye victory would have given MSU control of its own destiny in the Rose Bowl race. However, Dantonio has never rooted against his friend Jim Tressel, aside from times when they have coached against one another.
On Saturday, when asked who he was rooting for, Dantonio ducked the question by responding, "Michigan State."
Sunday, he was asked if it was difficult watching a game that meant so much to his program, yet one that he had no control over.
"No it's not (difficult to watch). It's really not because you really don't have any control out there either, at times, as plays develop," Dantonio said, pointing across the road to Spartan Stadium. "Players make plays. That's what's happening. That's what you saw yesterday, guys making plays.
"You can put them in the right defense, or the right offense or the right play or special teams, but the players have to make the plays. We had some guys doing that. Obviously Terrelle Pryor was doing that yesterday on fourth-and-10 and they won because of it.
Where's The Beef?
For the third time in four games, Michigan State was held below 110 yards rushing. Not coincidentally, MSU fell behind each of those three opponents - Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue - by double figures. The big deficits led Michigan State to go to the air and abort plans to stick with the running game and offensive balance.
Dantonio acknowledges that Michigan State is not running the ball well. The Spartans averaged just 3.8 yards per rush against Purdue (95 net yards on the day), 1.6 yards per rush against Iowa (31 net yards) and 4.0 yards per rush against Northwestern (105 net yards).
Just because the Spartans have had to finish games with a finesse, aerial offense doesn't mean that Dantonio plans to alter the team's philosophy for the near or long term.
"What we have to do is continue to emphasize toughness, and that means we have to be able to run the ball effectively," Dantonio said. "We will continue to do that. But credit the people we are playing against too. I mean they've got good players and Penn State is good as well. But we have to challenge ourselves and come emotionally ready."
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