Michigan St.-Northwestern Preview

The Associated Press

Michigan State isn't ready to celebrate quite yet.

The 13th-ranked Spartans locked up at least a tie for the Big Ten Legends Division title with a 41-28 win at Nebraska last Saturday. They need one more win, or one Minnesota loss, to clinch the division outright.

Linebacker Max Bullough wants to leave nothing to chance, so it's full steam ahead to Saturday's visit to Northwestern, which has lost six in a row.

"We'll worry about all the other implications when they come," Bullough said. "We can't play our bowl game tomorrow. We can't play our bowl game next week. We can just play the next game on the schedule."

To be denied a second appearance in the conference championship game in three years, the Spartans (9-1, 6-0) would have to lose their last two games - against Northwestern (4-6, 0-6) and at home against Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) - plus the Gophers would have to beat No. 16 Wisconsin at home this week.

The win over the Cornhuskers was a breakthrough. Before last Saturday, Michigan State had beaten each of its Big Ten opponents at least once since 2011 except Nebraska.

Coach Mark Dantonio noted that the Spartans will be in the Big Ten race on the last day of the regular season for the fourth time since 2008.

"Those are big positive steps for a program from when we came here," the seventh-year Spartans coach said. "It shows we have a solid foundation, but we need to continue to coach, and play and play up and continue to climb the ladder. You want to be where we are at, at the end of the season. I think it was a statement for a lot of people, for recruits and for everybody else."

The Spartans never trailed against the Huskers, and they turned four of Nebraska's five turnovers into points. But they did have to respond to pressure after Nebraska scored late in the third quarter to pull within 27-21.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook took another step in his development, leading Michigan State on a 10-play, 75-yard drive that made it a 13-point game in the middle of the fourth.

"He delivered," Dantonio said. "He had some big throws in the third and fourth quarters that really sort of put us over the top."

Cook hit Tony Lippett for a 34-yard gain on a third-and-5. After the Spartans picked up a first down on a fake field goal, a 12-yard pass to Bennie Fowler on third-and-8 was called back because of an ineligible receiver downfield. But on the next play Cook threw a perfect ball to Keith Mumphrey on a post pattern for a 27-yard touchdown.

"I knew we needed a touchdown to kind of seal the deal, get us a bigger cushion as a team," Cook said. "I'm calm and cool under pressure. I feel like I've been like that. I believe in myself."

The Spartans scored touchdowns on three of their last four full series and finished with 361 yards. That total was 18 yards under their season average, but it was enough on a day Nebraska couldn't hang onto the ball.

Michigan State improved to 3-1 on the road, with the only blemish a four-point loss at then-No. 22 Notre Dame on Sept. 21.

"We've been good on the road. We've come together," Dantonio said. "That's a happy locker room, and the guys feel fulfilled a little bit. We're moving in the right direction."

The same can't be said for Northwestern as losses keep piling up, and they're getting more brutal by the week.

After they lost by three at Nebraska on Nov. 2 when the Cornhuskers scored on a tipped desperation heave with no time left, the Wildcats allowed the tying 44-yard field goal in a chaotic finish at the end of regulation and lost 27-19 in triple overtime to visiting Michigan last Saturday.

"It's pretty unbelievable," kicker Jeff Budzien said. "It's shocking. It's depressing. If you had told me we'd be 4-6 at this time of year, I would have laughed at you."

Last week's loss continued a spiral that began when the then-No. 16 Wildcats blew a 10-point third-quarter lead and lost by 10 to No. 4 Ohio State at home Oct. 5.

"It's been rough," quarterback Trevor Siemian said. "It's been rough for me. It's been rough for everybody else in the locker room, Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald). It's not fun, but we just keep working."

The Wildcats ended a four-game skid in this series with a 23-20 victory at Michigan State last season. The Spartans have won their last four visits to Northwestern.

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