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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio knows how far Michigan State has come. He is much more interested in where the Spartans are going.
No. 13 Michigan State (9-1, 6-0 Big Ten) is one win from their second Big Ten championship game in three seasons and two wins from the best conference record in school history. They locked up a share of the Legends Division title with a 41-28 win at Nebraska, their first win in eight tries against the Cornhuskers.
Now, they can take another step toward their first Rose Bowl berth in 26 years with a victory at Northwestern (4-6, 0-6) on Saturday.
"I don't want anyone to think we've arrived," Dantonio said Tuesday. "We've not arrived. We're a long way from that."
Michigan State hasn't lost since Sept. 21, the last day the Wildcats won. That doesn't mean the Spartans are guaranteed of anything except Northwestern's best effort, the same kind that Pat Fitzgerald's teams have shown in the series recently and in a string of excruciating losses.
"They need two more wins to get to a bowl game, so they're in that kind of mode," Dantonio said. "I know how they've played us the past six years. They've never taken a play off. I expect the same thing this week."
With a school-record 38 wins in the past four seasons, Michigan State has plenty of unfinished business. The Spartans would love to beat the Wildcats, then top No. 3 Ohio State in Indianapolis to complete a five-team payback from difficult setbacks in 2012.
"We've put ourselves in position to compete for a championship a number of times since we've been here," Dantonio said. "That doesn't just happen."
Michigan State is closing in on its third 11-win season in four years, the only times that has happened in the program's 117-year history. Its 33 conference wins since 2008 are the most in the Big Ten, with Ohio State vacating seven of its 38 victories in that span.
Despite being picked fourth in the Legends Division and not cracking the Top 25 until week 10, the Spartans don't seem surprised by their bounce-back season. They are just happy to celebrate in private each Saturday, something their staff picked up in the offseason from Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney.
"I'm more surprised that we lost last year," said Dantonio, who is 61-28 in seven years at Michigan State. "I'm always very confident we can win against any team we play if we do what we're supposed to do."
If the path to Pasadena starts with defense, the Spartans should be optimistic. They rank No. 1 in the nation in total defense for the 10th straight week, allowing 228.4 yards per game. Michigan State, Florida State and Louisville are the only FBS schools to be in the top five in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense.
"We need to guard against complacency and handle success," Dantonio said. "Handling success means winning the next game, not being flat and rising to the occasion every time. It's playing confidently, taking calculated risks and going after things."