Overlooked Spartans focused on title

Remember the Michigan State Spartans?

They have a 10-1 record, a No. 10 national ranking and a golden opportunity ahead of them Saturday at Penn State. A win in Happy Valley would give Michigan State a single-season team record for victories, not to mention the program's first Big Ten championship in 20 years.

Maybe at that point, people will start to take notice of the Spartans again. Maybe.

Most of the Big Ten buzz is centering on the Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes, who are competing for the higher BCS ranking -- the final tiebreaker to determine the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth.

Wisconsin has garnered national attention for its six-game win streak, its offensive surge and the debate about whether coach Bret Bielema runs up the score. Ohio State re-entered the national spotlight the past two weeks with a second-half surge against Penn State and a dramatic win at Iowa that made the Buckeyes the first team in Big Ten history to record six consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins.

Michigan State, meanwhile, has become somewhat of a forgotten team, despite having an identical record (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) to both Wisconsin and Ohio State.

"Ohio State and Wisconsin lost a few weeks earlier than we did," Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins told ESPN.com this week. "Wisconsin has obviously won in some impressive fashions these past few weeks, and when you do that, you're going to get noticed. We've won some closer games. And when it's 30-0 when you're at Iowa at halftime, it's tough to make somebody take notice. So I can understand some of the reasons for not being in our bandwagon as much as they are with Ohio State or Wisconsin.

"It's a little unfortunate."

The buzz factor also contributes to Michigan State's uphill climb to reach the Rose Bowl. The Spartans trail both No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State in BCS average and have virtually no chance of leapfrogging both if all three teams win this week. Since Michigan State doesn't play Ohio State, the Spartans' best hope is to root for, yep, archrival Michigan to beat the Buckeyes this week. If that happens, Michigan State can clinch a Rose Bowl berth by beating Penn State.

It's a somewhat unfortunate position, especially since Michigan State has the best record (1-0) in games played between the Big Ten leaders.

"You look back to the preseason," Cousins said, "and Wisconsin and Ohio State, in most preseason rankings, were ranked, and in a lot of rankings may have been top-10, top-5 teams. I had seen us anywhere from the 30s to the 60s in terms of preseason rankings. I don't know if there were any publications that had us consistently in the Top 25.

"When you're trying to catch up that much ground, it makes it a lot more difficult when you lose a game to get back up there, whereas a Wisconsin and an Ohio State was able to get back up there a little more easily."

Barring an upset in Columbus or Madison, Michigan State likely will be heading to the Capital One Bowl even if it beats Penn State. While a trip to Pasadena, New Orleans or Miami would bring greater prestige, the Spartans aren't overly concerned about their holiday destination.

Their sole focus is Penn State and what it would mean to beat the Lions.

"The bottom line is what's going to be remembered far longer than a certain bowl game is the effort that it took to get to a championship," Cousins said. "And if we can win this championship, which we do control, that's going to be special. The championship means a lot more, in the sense that it's something that takes place over a long period of time, that you play out, that you earn.

"The bowl selection can just come down to a ranking or a roll of the dice on a Sunday selection show."

Michigan State hasn't been as dominant as Wisconsin or Ohio State, but the Spartans keep finding ways to win, as they showed last Saturday with a furious fourth-quarter rally against Purdue. Their season has been defined by clutch special-teams plays and overcoming adversity, which they'll face again in Happy Valley.

Cousins recently revealed that he has been dealing with a sprained shoulder and a sprained ankle since the Oct. 16 game against Illinois, which explains some of his struggles in recent weeks. The junior aggravated both injuries against Purdue but showed incredible fortitude to pass for three touchdowns and rush for another, the game-winner, as Michigan State survived.

"They're both sprained, and the deal with sprains is until you rest them for a significant amount of time, they don't really heal," he said. "So if you continue to play on it, that's fine, you're not going to really do much more damage to it. But it's not going to be at full strength."

Michigan State makes its second straight trip to Penn State with a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title. In 2008, the Spartans got spanked 49-18 as Penn State celebrated a championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

"I've never been there, but the stories I've heard say it's a very hostile environment," sophomore running back Edwin Baker said. "We have a lot of players on our team that were on the 2008 team when they went down there, so we have a lot of experience coming into the game, and we know what to expect when we get there."

Michigan State hasn't won in Happy Valley since 1965, the year before Joe Paterno took over as Penn State's head coach.

"That's a very long time," Baker said of the drought, "but there's a first time for everything."