55F Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA
Alone atop the Big Ten's Legends Division, Michigan State has a berth in the conference's inaugural championship game squarely in its sights.
The most difficult roadblock in its path to that title game in Indianapolis could be in Iowa City this weekend.
With the memories of last season's debacle at Iowa still lingering, the 13th-ranked Spartans look to avoid an eighth consecutive road loss to the Hawkeyes on Saturday.
One week after losing 24-3 at Nebraska, Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) rallied for a 31-24 home win over Minnesota last Saturday. That victory, along with a loss by the Cornhuskers and Iowa's 24-16 win over Michigan, has the Spartans in sole possession of the division lead with three games remaining before the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Michigan State concludes the regular season with games against Indiana and Northwestern.
"I think you have to play through the tough times. You have to play through the storms," coach Mark Dantonio said. "The more experienced you are at handling these things, the more opportunities you have to go in, the better you should become. So we should be getting there."
Dantonio hopes his Spartans can use the school's past struggles at Kinnick Stadium as a means of motivation heading into this contest.
Michigan State's seven-game skid at Iowa dates back to a 17-14 win there Oct. 7, 1989. Last year's 37-6 loss to the then-No. 18 Hawkeyes was the Spartans' only regular-season defeat, and it cost them a trip to a BCS bowl.
The Spartans were held to a regular season-low 258 yards, including just 31 on the ground.
"Every time a cut-up is played, particular plays, whether it's on special teams or defense or offense, that scoreboard flashes," Dantonio said. "So they've got a reminder - every time they watch film of us last year there is a reminder."
Michigan State's Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions in that game - one returned for a touchdown that put the Spartans behind 17-0 late in the first quarter. Facing Iowa is usually an emotional affair for Cousins, whose mother went to Iowa and grandfather played football for the Hawkeyes.
Cousins, who threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Golden Gophers, has thrown for 423 yards with two TDs while going 0-2 versus Iowa.
"I think the game's magnitude can be referenced in terms of where we're at as a program and trying to do as a team," Dantonio said. "I think it's much further than him individually competing against Iowa.
"I think the concern or the focus has got to be what we have to do to stay on top of this division, this Legends Division, as we move forward."
Saturday's game is extremely important in that regard considering Iowa (6-3, 3-2) is tied with Nebraska and Michigan for second place in the division. A Hawkeyes victory could temporarily create a four-way tie.
"We need to get ourselves emotionally ready to play," said Dantonio, who has not allowed his players to talk to the media this week. "Anything we have on our mind needs to be focused on that football team."
Iowa, looking to close out its home schedule 7-0, became bowl eligible by holding the potent Michigan offense to 323 total yards last weekend at home. Sophomore Marcus Coker ran 29 times for 132 yards and two scores one week after gaining a career-high 252 yards on 32 carries in a 22-21 loss at Minnesota.
"Last week we deserved to feel bad and we earned that, and this week is the flip," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "These guys earned a chance to feel really good about themselves."
Coker has scored two TDs in each of the last four games while totaling 647 yards on the ground during that span. He had 16 carries for just 40 yards versus Michigan State last season.
Teammate Marvin McNutt posted his third straight 100-yard receiving game with 101 on nine catches against the Wolverines. McNutt ranks 12th in the nation with 959 receiving yards on 57 receptions, and two of his four career catches against the Spartans have been for touchdowns.
Michigan's State B.J. Cunningham, who has nine catches for 206 yards in his last two games, has 11 for 145 and a TD in three versus Iowa.