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INDIANAPOLIS — When the Michigan State football team kicks off against Wisconsin on Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game, it will try to achieve something beyond its first Rose Bowl berth in 24 years.
In winning, the 11th-ranked Spartans would reach the finish line in their journey to burn off negative labels that have been brought on by years of late season collapses, fourth quarter gag jobs, and an inability to follow up productive seasons with more.
Even now, after MSU won the Legends division and secured back-to-back 10-win seasons, people are not convinced. Wisconsin, a team the Spartans beat six weeks ago, is a 9.5-point favorite. Kickoff is set for 8:17 p.m. inside the weather-sheltered Lucas Oil Stadium. To the winner goes the Big Ten’s bid in the Rose Bowl, which MSU hasn’t snagged since the 1987 season. The 15th-ranked Badgers (10-2, 6-2) are seeking their second straight Rose Bowl appearance after grabbing it last year in a tiebreaker with fellow Big Ten champs Michigan State and Ohio State.
“I think we’re changing perceptions as we go,” fifth-year coach Mark Dantonio said.
In its 13 games, MSU hasn’t been favored six times. Its three wins as an underdog came in a daunting three-game stretch in October against Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin, whom the Spartans took out with a hail mary on the final play in a 37-31 win on Oct. 22. It was MSU’s third win in four tries against the Badgers, and because of a scheduling quirk, the last two were played in East Lansing.
Even TV has failed to show love. A Nov. 12 win at Iowa that determined the leader in the division was aired at noon on ESPN2, so that Michigan’s game at Illinois would get the more desirable 3:30 p.m. treatment on ABC. The Spartans had beaten UM for the fourth straight year.
Addressing a room of reporters at the stadium Friday, Dantonio said he hopes his team is “erasing that thought process” of being perceived as a flawed program.
“As far as being underdogs ... we’re sort of unfazed by it,” he said. “I tell our players don’t worry about what the so called experts say. The experts are in that locker room and they’re their coaches. We’re the people that study that football film. We’re the people who have to go out and play it and live it, and in Wisconsin’s locker room, they’re the experts.”
Dantonio, a former Ohio State defensive coordinator, is big into using subliminal messages to motivate his players. When the Spartans arrived to practice this week, each was greeted by a rose sitting in his locker. Dantonio also issued them pieces of a rock that offensive line coach Mark Staten took from outside Rose Bowl Stadium this summer on a recruiting visit.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them,” Dantonio said.
If Saturday’s game is half as exciting as the regular season match up, it’ll be enjoyable. Both teams blew 14-point leads — Wisconsin early, and MSU late — and combined for 28 fourth-quarter points. When Wisconsin rallied to tie the game with 3:09 remaining after touchdown runs by Montee Ball and Russell Wilson, the Spartans responded with a miraculous game-winning drive that won’t soon be forgotten. On the final play, senior quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled to his right, and under pressure, heaved a ball near the goal line. Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis jumped and stretched his arms but came up about an inch short of changing the ball’s trajectory. Instead the ball bounced off of the helmet visor of MSU’s receiver B.J. Cunningham and into the hands of tight end, and former quarterback, Keith Nichol at the 1-yard line. Nichol buried his head and muscled forward, barely crossing the goal line with the nose of the football.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he’s looking forward to a rematch at a neutral site.
“I think it’s probably a thing of respect,” Bielema said. “I think our kids respect Michigan State and the way they play the game.”
On Saturday, perhaps the rest of the nation will too.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.