Off to its best start in 44 years, Michigan State is surely more concerned about a different goal which has eluded the program for two decades.
Their first Big Ten title since 1990 is very much within reach for the eighth-ranked Spartans, who visit Northwestern on Saturday seeking to stay unbeaten.
Michigan State (7-0, 3-0) controls its own destiny in the conference race. The Spartans do not play No. 11 Ohio State and they beat No. 10 Wisconsin, which knocked off the then-No. 1 Buckeyes last Saturday.
If the Spartans reach a BCS bowl, it would be their most prominent postseason game since beating Southern California in the 1988 Rose Bowl. They shared the Big Ten championship three seasons later but settled for a trip to the John Hancock Bowl.
Michigan State, set to play outside its home state for the first time this year, has not been undefeated this far into a season since winning its first nine games in 1966.
“We’re very excited about the 7-0 start because it hasn’t been done here in a while,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “But I told our football team (Monday) that it doesn’t make a season. We must continue the momentum and win more games. We have five very competitive games left, beginning Saturday.”
Dantonio’s team may be wise not to look past the Wildcats, especially after a lackluster first half left the Spartans trailing at halftime last Saturday before holding Illinois scoreless in the second half in a 26-6 victory.
“Needless to say, it was not one of our better-performing first halves,” offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. “But the true test of a championship-type team is certainly working through adversity, and then when you are backed up against it, being able to answer - and we were really pleased our kids did that.”
The Spartans held the Illini to 114 rushing yards, 103 below their season average, and forced four turnovers. Greg Jones was named national defensive player of the week after recording a season-high 14 tackles.
Northwestern may use its complex spread offense to confuse a Michigan State defense which allows 16.6 points per game to rank 17th in the country.
The Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) are coming off a bye week after losing 20-17 to visiting Purdue on Oct. 9 despite holding the Boilermakers to 47 yards passing. It was the lowest-scoring game of the season for a Wildcats offense which ranks 12th nationally in third-down efficiency.
Dan Persa threw for 305 yards and completed 30 of 41 passes - he leads the nation in completion percentage (78.0) - but he didn’t have a touchdown pass for the first time this season. Persa, also Northwestern’s top rusher, was held to 24 yards on 20 carries as the team ran for a season-low 84 yards.
Michigan State’s run defense has looked vulnerable lately, giving up an average of 140.0 yards to its last four opponents after holding its first three under 100. The Spartans, though, have improved against the pass, making 10 interceptions in the last four games while limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 47.7 completion percentage and an average of 157.3 yards.
However, their pass defense will be missing starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker for the second consecutive week. Dantonio suspended the senior indefinitely after his arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
Northwestern (437.5 yards) and Michigan State (424.7) rank second and third, respectively, in the conference in total offense.
Kirk Cousins, who threw for 281 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s 24-14 win over Northwestern, has thrown a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive games. Michigan State averages 206.1 yards rushing using a rotating three-back system of Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper.
“Michigan State has been outstanding on offense,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “(Cousins) does a great job, he’s as consistent a quarterback as there is in this league, they have weapons on the perimeter, they’ve got a three-headed monster at running back, they’re very physical up front and they run it well.”
The Spartans have won their last two trips to Evanston, including a 41-38 victory in 2006 when they overcame a 38-3 third-quarter deficit to record the biggest comeback in FBS history.