EAST LANSING, Mich. — For the second straight season, an unheralded Big Ten team is undefeated in late October, its fans dreaming of a conference championship — and maybe more.
Last year, that team was Iowa, and this time it’s Michigan State, so perhaps it’s fitting that the fifth-ranked Spartans will put their perfect record on the line against the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes in Iowa City this weekend.
“The next step is probably what we thought going into the season, one of our bigger challenges: going on the road to play at Iowa,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “They win the right way. I think they win with execution.”
The Hawkeyes started 9-0 last season, making a valiant bid for an unexpected conference title before dropping a pair of November games and ending up in the Orange Bowl. Michigan State’s rise has been an even bigger surprise. The Spartans (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll, but here they are, inching their way into the national title discussion.
After this weekend, Michigan State plays two of its last three games at home. The Spartans are already alone in first place in the Big Ten, and since Ohio State isn’t on the schedule this season, Michigan State would certainly have the inside track to the league title with a win over Iowa (5-2, 2-1).
“We need to have fun with this, enjoy the ride a little bit,” Dantonio said. “In saying that, you know, continue to be enthusiastic in our own way and continue to try and put the next block up. That’s how we’ve tried to do it.”
Michigan State provided one of the season’s most memorable highlights last month, beating Notre Dame with a fake field goal in overtime. The Spartans also edged Northwestern last weekend after a successful fake punt in the fourth quarter.
In between trick plays, Michigan State has worn down opponents with a relentless running game and a maturing quarterback. Kirk Cousins has thrown 14 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.
“It’s something you dream of doing around here — a Big Ten championship and going to a BCS bowl game,” Cousins said. “I think being 8-0 is special, but 9-0 is that much more special. It’s something that hasn’t been done around here a lot.”
The Spartans are seldom dazzling but always effective, which means they’re pretty similar to last year’s Iowa team, which eked out close wins over Northern Iowa, Arkansas State, Michigan and Michigan State before finally falling to Northwestern and Ohio State.
The Hawkeyes were 7-0 when they came to East Lansing a year ago, and they needed a 7-yard touchdown pass from Ricky Stanzi to Marvin McNutt as time expired to beat Michigan State 15-13.
“This was the game last year that a lot of people were picking us to lose,” Iowa offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde said. “Like, ‘Oh, there’s no way they’ll get past Michigan State.’ We pulled it out at the end.”
Now it’s Michigan State dealing with the skeptics. The Spartans have passed every test so far, and they’ve moved up the rankings accordingly, but there’s still a sense people are waiting for them to lose.
“They may be waiting for a while. That’s a good football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s no fluke. They’ve earned every one of them.”
Michigan State went 6-7 last season, including a handful of close losses like the one against Iowa. Dantonio, who missed a couple games after a mild heart attack last month, is convinced the Spartans are more prepared to handle tight games this season.
“When you start making plays at the end of a game to win a football game, you’re in a close game, you start developing confidence you’re going to win that game and you find a way,” he said. “I think there’s something to that.”
Notes: Dantonio wouldn’t comment on suspended DB Chris L. Rucker, who has been jailed for violating probation but is scheduled to be released Thursday after serving eight days. Rucker pleaded guilty to reckless driving. … Michigan State has not won at Iowa since 1989.