Rolling Spartans to face wounded Gophers

Updated: October 16, 2003, 5:43 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Quarterback Jeff Smoker and his gaudy passing numbers might be the most visible reason for Michigan State's surprising success, but Minnesota coach Glen Mason said he's worried about the whole squad.

To illustrate his point at his weekly news conference, Mason pointed at one word on a wall painted with inspirational messages: Team.

"They are a team now," Mason said. "They're playing together as a team. Offensively, defensively and kicking game -- they're all on the same page. And that's why they're playing better."

Michigan State finished last season in shambles. The Spartans finished 4-8 with only two Big Ten victories -- Northwestern and Indiana. And Smoker, the leading passer in school history, was kicked off the team with five games left. His family later announced he was seeking treatment for substance abuse.

This week, Smoker and the Spartans (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) travel to Minnesota as the 15th-ranked team in the nation. They're also the hottest team in the conference.

"We are playing good football right now, and we just want to keep that going," said Smoker, who was reinstated before the season. "We don't want to be satisfied with being bowl eligible. We want to keep this up."

Smoker ranks second among the Big Ten leaders in passing and total offense -- right behind Michigan's John Navarre, who engineered the Wolverines' 31-point fourth quarter to upset the Gophers (6-1, 2-1) last Friday.

Minnesota, which fell from No. 17 to No. 25 in this week's Associated Press poll, is still recovering.

"It was an important game, but it was one game," guard Joe Quinn said. "There's five left and we feel we have a good chance if we take each game one at a time and just win out."

This week's opponent figures to pose an even greater challenge than the Wolverines.

The Spartans look like they're peaking at the right time. After their disappointing one-point loss to Louisiana Tech last month, they've outscored their opponents 122-43. That string includes wins over Notre Dame and conference foe Iowa, which is currently ranked ninth in the country.

"We are the only team that can keep us from a Big Ten championship, us beating ourselves," Smoker said.

The Spartans are one of only two 3-0 teams in the conference. The other, No. 14 Wisconsin, hosts undefeated Purdue this weekend. And four other teams, including Minnesota, have only one loss.

The Big Ten title is within reach of the Spartans, but it's going to be tough.

After the Gophers, the Spartans face the in-state rival Wolverines before Ohio State and the Badgers.

But considering they were eliminated early last year from the conference race, Smoker isn't complaining.

"Honestly, I wasn't sure where we would be at this point of the season," he said. "But I can say I'm real happy with where we are. We can do something special here."

They'll have to get past a wounded Minnesota team first. The Gophers were riding high going into the Michigan game. They led the Wolverines by 21 points in the fourth quarter and appeared to be on their way to remaining undefeated.

But a stalled offense and Navarre spoiled the evening and Minnesota was left with its most disappointing loss in years.

"We're definitely going to bounce back," quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said.

The Gophers still have one of the top offenses in the Big Ten, and it's powered by a ground game that's averaging 298 yards a game in the conference. A big part of that is Marion Barber III, who is averaging nearly 106 yards a game and scored a school record 14 rushing touchdowns this year.

But the Spartans bring one of the best run defenses Minnesota will see this year. Michigan State is allowing an average of 78.1 rushing yards per game. Only Ohio State (59.7) and Purdue (60.8) have been stingier.

The Spartans know the Gophers are capable of raising that average.

"This is a team that's going to run the ball 50 times maybe," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "And we haven't seen that kind of attack all year."

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index