54F Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Michigan State has seemed to look ahead throughout the season, focusing on the goals it set out to attain.
Despite the 11th-ranked Spartans having already punched their ticket to the inaugural Big Ten championship game, they'd prefer to buck that trend this week.
Michigan State looks to end its regular season on a strong note Saturday by beating Northwestern on the road for the fourth straight time.
The Spartans (9-2, 6-1) clinched the conference's Legends Division with a 55-3 rout of lowly Indiana, combined with Michigan's 45-17 win over Nebraska last week.
"While it takes a little bit of pressure off of us, our focus remains on Northwestern and finishing the task at hand," coach Mark Dantonio said. "The focus has got to stay on Northwestern, and that's the way we'll keep it."
Michigan State will face the winner of Saturday's contest between No. 15 Wisconsin and No. 20 Penn State in the Big Ten title game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis. A victory there would put Michigan State in the Rose Bowl for the first time since beating USC in 1988.
Kirk Cousins, who went 16 for 23 for 272 yards and three touchdowns last week, said there's still work to be done before the Spartans can look ahead.
"Our focus has always been to (beat Indiana) and win (at Northwestern) and not need any help to get into the championship game," said Cousins, who is one TD pass from tying Jeff Smoker's school record of 61. "We got some help, but we still want to beat Northwestern and then take that momentum to Indianapolis."
The Spartans are already riding high, boasting a defense that allows 257.3 yards per game - third in the nation - while winning the turnover battle 7-1 during their three-game winning streak. Michigan State has turned it over only 12 times this season, tied for seventh-fewest in the FBS.
Cousins has been nearly flawless in his two career starts versus Northwestern, throwing for 612 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions while leading the Spartans to a pair of second-half comeback wins.
One of those touchdown tosses went to B.J. Cunningham with two minutes left in a 35-27 victory in Evanston on Oct. 23, 2010, as MSU rallied from 17 down.
Northwestern (6-5, 3-4), which has blown two double-digit leads this season, should be eager for payback.
It comes in riding a four-game winning streak, which includes a stunning 28-25 victory at then-No. 9 Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Wildcats became bowl eligible for the fifth straight season with a 28-13 victory over Minnesota last week.
Four of the last five meetings between the Wildcats and Spartans have been decided by 10 points or fewer.
"Every game we've played against them has been an extremely tough game," Dantonio said. "Back-and-forth games, physical games, and with that comes respect."
Northwestern boasts the conference's second-ranked offense (438.5 yards per game), one that will be tested by a Spartans defense that allows an average of 15.3 points - fifth in the nation.
Dan Persa went 22 for 31 for 216 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota after throwing four TD passes in a 28-6 win over Rice on Nov. 12, though his rushing totals are down from last season.
Persa, who missed the Wildcats' first three games and most of the Nebraska win with multiple injuries, has totaled only 76 yards on the ground - far less than the 519 he ran for in 10 games in 2010. He's rushed for one score compared to nine last year, including three in the loss to Michigan State.
But Persa has nine of his 15 touchdown passes during the winning streak while appearing more comfortable in the pocket.
"A very hungry group in our offensive room, no question about that," coach Pat Fitzgerald told Northwestern's official website. "Especially Danny. I really liked his attitude. I promise you. Nobody's satisfied by winning just six games."
The Spartans sacked Persa eight times in last season's meeting, and their 32 sacks this season rank second in the conference.