EVANSTON, Ill. – A spot in the Big Ten championship game. A possible trip to the Rose Bowl.
It's all in sight for No. 13 Michigan State, as long as the Spartans don't stumble down the stretch.
Michigan State is one win from its second Big Ten title game in three seasons and two from the best conference record in school history heading into Saturday's matchup at Northwestern. The Spartans (9-1, 6-0 Big Ten) are also eyeing their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 26 years, but they still have some work to do.
"These two weeks are things that you work for really for your entire life," coach Mark Dantonio said. "You work to try and get in this situation where you're 9-1 and you're playing for a division championship, or next weekend you're playing for something else."
What they've been doing is impressive.
They have a school record 38 victories over the past four years and are closing in on their third 11-win season in that span, a first for the program in its 117 years.
Michigan State also leads the Big Ten with 33 conference wins since 2008 with Ohio State vacating seven of its 38 during that stretch and is closing in on the Legends Division title. All the Spartans have to do is win one of the next two games or hope Minnesota loses, with the Golden Gophers visiting next week.
It's a big improvement from last year, when a string of close losses left them with a 7-6 record.
Michigan State already has paid back Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska, and it would love nothing more than to do it to Northwestern and Ohio State in the conference title game — teams it lost to by a combined four points a year ago.
"We definitely went through a tough, tough streak last year," offensive tackle Fou Fonoti said. "But right now, we're just thankful for (the fact that) a lot of times things that didn't go our way last year are definitely playing into our favor."
Then again, they might have some sympathy for Northwestern (4-6, 0-6). After all, there are similarities between what the Wildcats are experiencing this season and what the Spartans went through in 2012.
"I don't know if there's another team in the country that can get socked in the gut the way these guys have and respond the way that they have," coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Coming off a 10-win season, Northwestern won its first four games and was leading Ohio State by 10 at home before a national audience when the season derailed. They lost that game by 10, got blown out at Wisconsin and absorbed one body blow after another in recent weeks. They fell by three to Minnesota and lost in overtime to Iowa. Then, they lost to Nebraska in regulation on a desperation pass, and if that wasn't enough, there was the Michigan game last week. Northwestern fell 27-19 in triple-OT on a 5-yard run by Devin Gardner after the Wolverines' Brendan Gibbons sprinted onto the field for a tying 44-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
"We've got two games left," quarterback Kain Colter said. "You can't pout now."
Here are five things to look for in this game:
STINGY Spartans: The Spartans have been as tough to move the ball against as any team in the country. They lead the nation in total defense (228.4 yards per game) and are No. 1 against the run (57.3 yards), and when it comes to points, they're not giving up many, either. Michigan State is allowing just 13.2 points per game — fourth in the country.
FADING 'CATS: The Wildcats matched their longest losing streak since 2006, and they haven't dropped seven in a row since an eight-game slide in 1998 — Gary Barnett's final year as coach. Their five-year bowl run is just about over, too, certainly not what they envisioned. If they lose on Saturday, they'll be visiting Illinois in what could be a matchup between teams seeking their first conference wins. In fact, the only team in the state with Big Ten victories is Northern Illinois with two — and the Huskies play in the Mid-American Conference.
THE CORNER-STONE: The Spartans rank fifth in the nation in passing defense at 171.1 yards per game, and a big reason why is cornerback Darqueze Dennard. A senior, he ranks among the Big Ten leaders in interceptions (3), pass break-ups (7) and passes defended (10).
ON THE MOVE: Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford has five straight 100-yard games and is approaching 1,000 for the season with 926. He is also averaging 4.7 yards and leads the Big Ten with 13 rushing touchdowns.
SCHOOL RECORD IN REACH: With 261 career points, Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien needs one to tie the school mark set by Brian Gowins from 1995 to 1998.