With a 9-1 record and lofty No. 10 ranking in the national polls, Michigan State can determine its own destiny for staking claim to its first Big Ten championship since 1990.
Coming off a bye week, the Spartans finish at home against Purdue this Saturday and at Penn State on Nov. 27. If Michigan State can beat the Boilermakers on senior day and then register their first win in Happy Valley since 1965, the Spartans still have a chance to win (or share) the Big Ten title and go to the Rose Bowl.
For that to happen, the most likely scenarios would be for MSU and Wisconsin to win out and each finish 7-1. If Ohio State can get past Iowa on Saturday, there's a good chance the Buckeyes could be 7-1 and make it a three-way tie. The Spartans hold the tiebreaker in a two-way tie with Wisconsin but will need to rise in the BCS rankings in the case of a three-way tie.
Now in his fifth year on Coach Mark Dantonio's staff as the quarterback coach, Lehighton native Dave Warner says winning the Big Ten is always the number one goal for the Spartans going into the season. This season's 8-0 start was the best at MSU since 1966 when that team went undefeated, with just the legendary 10-10 tie against Notre Dame to spoil a perfect record.
Ironically, this year's Spartan win in overtime over the Irish in the third game of the season got the team riding a high that included wins over Wisconsin 34-24, Michigan 34-17, and Northwestern 35-27.
Warner, who has spent 21 of his previous 26 seasons coaching quarterbacks and/or as an offensive coordinator, feels that two big reasons for the Spartans' success this year are the team's veteran leadership and the fact that the team and football community at MSU have adjusted to Dantonio's system.
"We felt last spring we had very good leadership, and our seniors are playing very well," Warner said.
Spartan coaches were thankful for last Saturday's bye-week which gave a number of key players the chance to get healthy in time for the last two challenges against Purdue and Penn State.
Directing the Spartan offense is quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose leadership and decision-making have been key this year. One of the most impressive performances by the junior captain was against Northwestern, when he brought the Spartans back from a 17-point deficit to a 35-27 win, completing 27 of 35 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns.
As fans at the games as well as television viewers have seen, Cousins reports directly to Warner whenever the offense exits the field.
"We had high expectations for Kirk and he's played very well," Warner says. "He's won a couple of games by having great passing days."
Cousins' toughest day came in the Spartans' lone loss this season at Iowa. Because the quarterback is so highly motivated, Warner feels he tends to put more pressure on himself. Now that Cousins is over the shock and disappointment of that tough 37-6 loss, Warner feels he's back on track and set to lead the offense against Purdue and Penn State.
Beside the devastating loss at Iowa City, the other emotional setback suffered by the Sparta's football community this season was the mild heart attack suffered by Coach Dantonio shortly after that stirring overtime win against Notre Dame. Warner said the workload became heavier for the coaching staff but the fact that Dantonio's system and program are well-entrenched made it easier for the players and coaches to push ahead and remain focused.
"We all know how to keep moving forward, to keep the program moving in the right direction," Warner said. "The fact that we stayed on task is a credit to the program."
Dantonio returned to the booth for the Spartans' blowout win against rival Michigan.
Warner has spent 21 of his previous 26 seasons in college coaching tutoring quarterbacks and/or as an offensive coordinator. On game day, he has coached from the sidelines as well as the press box, and says there are pluses and minuses to both views.
The press box gives coaches the opportunity to see the big picture, but when it comes to tutoring players, such as the relationship between Warner and Cousins, there's nothing better than a face-to-face dialogue.
When the Spartan comes to State College to take on Nittany Nation in the season finale, the stakes will be high – a Big Ten and Rose Bowl berth will be hanging in the balance.
With the 107,000-plus fans expected to fill Beaver Stadium, Warner said it would be nice to see a few specks of Spartan green from his friends in Lehighton in that sea of white on game day.
"We've had our problems playing at Penn State through the years, so having a little support would be nice," he quipped.