Bittersweet Big Ten title for Spartans
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Moments after No. 10 Michigan State defeated Penn State 28-22 at Beaver Stadium, Spartans linebacker Eric Gordon described winning a share of the school's first Big Ten championship since 1990 as "amazing."
Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones said the feeling was "awesome," and wide receiver B.J. Cunningham described it as "great."
But you couldn't have blamed the Spartans for describing their accomplishment as unfulfilling, either.
After winning at Penn State for the first time since 1965, the Spartans finished the regular season with an 11-1 record. On Oct. 2, they defeated Wisconsin 34-24 in East Lansing, Mich., the No. 7 Badgers' only loss during the regular season.
Wisconsin's 70-23 win over Northwestern means the Badgers will share the Big Ten championship with Michigan State and Ohio State.
Michigan State didn't play the No. 8 Buckeyes, who clinched their share of the Big Ten title by blasting rival Michigan 37-7 on Saturday.
Wisconsin will probably claim the league's automatic berth in the Rose Bowl because it will likely be the highest-rated Big Ten team in the final BCS standings, which serve as the final tiebreaker.
And Ohio State will probably earn a trip to a lucrative BCS bowl game as an at-large selection because the Buckeyes have more tradition -- i.e. a larger fan base, which is more willing to travel to Miami, New Orleans or Phoenix for a January bowl game -- than the Spartans.
Youth is served
Penn State relied heavily on freshmen this season and it showed -- the Nittany Lions failed to win nine games for the first time since 2004. But that experience should bode well for next season. Schlabach
Michigan State will probably have to settle for playing an SEC team in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day.
Rarely has a team from a BCS conference been rewarded less for finishing 11-1. At least this scenario won't be repeated next season, when the Big Ten expands to 12 teams with the addition of Nebraska and plays a conference championship game.
"We're going to go to one of those bowl games as Big Ten champions, whether it's the Rose, the Fiesta or the Capital One," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.
The Spartans' only loss of the season was a 37-6 defeat at Iowa on Oct. 30, which ended their eight-game winning streak to start the season.
That ugly defeat in Iowa City nearly a month ago cost the Spartans much more than a chance to play for the BCS national championship.
It also dropped them behind the Badgers and Buckeyes in the Big Ten pecking order. BCS selection rules allow only two teams from one conference to play in BCS bowl games.
"I think right now we're one of the top eight or nine teams in the country," Dantonio said. "I know only two teams can come from the Big Ten, but you certainly have to throw our hat in the ring. We're the only football team that's beaten Wisconsin, and I might add that we did it convincingly. I'll say it twice, we did it convincingly. They're up there at [No. 6 or No. 7], and we should be right up there with them."
Truth be told, the Spartans probably accomplished more than the Badgers or Buckeyes this season. Shortly after Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 34-31 in overtime on a fake field goal Sept. 18, Dantonio was hospitalized after suffering a mild heart attack.
Dantonio missed his team's next two games -- victories over FCS foe Northern Colorado and Wisconsin -- before he guided his team to wins over Michigan and Illinois while coaching from the press box. Dantonio coached the final five games from the sideline and seems to be in good health.
"I'm extremely content," Dantonio said. "I guess that's the way I feel. I'm not going to go running down the hall with my hair on fire. I'm content. I feel very blessed with my health and our football team and how they've rallied around each other and responded in the face of adversity all year. There's a lot of faith in that locker room."
The Spartans' last victory was one of their most impressive of the season. Michigan State had lost eight straight games at Beaver Stadium, including a 49-18 defeat in 2008. The Nittany Lions led 28-7 at the half in that game, and the Spartans allowed 557 yards of offense in the rout.
"We didn't find a way to screw it up [this time]," Jones said. "I think that's the one thing people have to realize; this is a different Michigan State and a different team."
On Saturday, the Spartans took a 21-3 lead early in the second half and led 28-10 with less than six minutes to go. Penn State scored two touchdowns in the final minutes, but Michigan State recovered an onside kick in the final minute to secure a victory.
"This team has come a long way," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I don't know that we've ever won here since they joined the Big Ten. It's another demon we've killed, along with winning the Big Ten and winning 11 games."
Finally, after being not much more than an also-ran in the Big Ten for much of the last two decades, there's a lot of pride in the Michigan State locker room, too.
"We're Big Ten champions and nobody can take it away from us," Cousins said. "It's going up on the wall at Spartan Stadium."
It's a shame the Spartans probably won't have a chance to add Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl champions to their accomplishments, too.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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