STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Mark Dantonio is calling Saturday's game at Penn State a "program game" because No. 10 Michigan State has the opportunity to win at least 10 games for the fourth time in five years.
First-year coach James Franklin is bidding farewell to a Penn State senior class that helped hold the program together.
The Spartans (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) face the Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-5) on Saturday. No titles are at stake but each program is bowl-eligible and each has its own motivation.
"I believe that winning 10 games around here right now is the benchmark," Dantonio said. "It puts us in the hunt always to be relevant in terms of the national picture, and certainly to be relevant in the Big Ten picture."
Franklin's first senior class had to deal with NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal in 2011. Some players transferred when the sanctions hit but many others opted to stay. Penn State's departing seniors have won 30 games and lost 18.
"You want them to leave here on a really positive note," Franklin said. "I think it's magnified, obviously, knowing everything that they've been through."
Franklin has been with the 17 seniors for just 11 months.
"You just go through so many different experiences," he said. "You spend so much time together that there is a bond there. It's weird to think that come our last game you're not going to see these guys again."
The game itself will feature Penn State's top-ranked rushing defense against Michigan State's powerfully balanced offense.
"All of our offensive records are falling," Dantonio said. "So it's been extremely productive."
Here are some things to watch during the Spartans-Nittany Lions game on Saturday:
SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE: Penn State has given up just seven plays of 30 yards or more in 11 games thus far. Michigan State's offense has run 32 plays of more than 30 yards. Penn State's defense is the nation's No. 1 rush defense and MSU's offense is one of just four teams to average at least 245 yards rushing and passing per game.
NOT TOO MANY COOKS: MSU quarterback Connor Cook already has guided the Spartans to three single-season offensive records for most points (438), most offensive TDs (55) and most yards in a season (5,571). Now the pressure is on to help Michigan State finish in the top 10 in back-to-back years for the first time since 1965-66.
MORE DEFENSIVE NUMBERS: Penn State won't be the only team with a good defense on Saturday. Michigan State's defense has intercepted 16 passes and recovered 15 fumbles for a plus-19 turnover margin that is third in the FBS. The Spartans' turnover margin is plus-1.73 and that leads the FBS. MSU's offense has fumbled just six times and has thrown just six picks. Penn State has thrown 14 interceptions and has lost eight fumbles and is minus-2 in turnover margin.
THE RECRUITING GAME: Penn State has just one starter from Michigan, and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel is an impact player. But the Spartans' Dantonio knows how important recruiting Pennsylvania players is for the program. He has six who are expected to see action: Tailback Delton Williams, safety Montae Nicholson, tight end Paul Lang, defensive back Demetrious Cox, offensive lineman Brandon Clemons and quarterback Damion Terry. "I think we want to have a presence in western Pa. and Pennsylvania in general," Dantonio said.
HE'S BEEN HERE BEFORE: Dantonio's first Big Ten title at Michigan State was clinched at Penn State four years ago. The Spartans won the game 28-22. "That was a great moment," Dantonio said. "We did it the hard way. We had to go away to do it, and we got it done. I think when you do things the hard way you have a little bit more appreciation for it." MSU's 49-37 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 8 eliminated the Spartans from conference title contention this season.