EAST LANSING, MICH. (AP) - Michigan State earned a spot in the Top 25 and a place in the Big Ten title race by going undefeated through the first half of the season with wins against Michigan, Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
The Spartans’ quest is to keep rolling to their first Big Ten title in two decades and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time the 1987 season.
“We’ll find out how mature we are as a football team,” coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “That’s in preparation and that’s in the way we go about our business. That’s in a game. Are we ready to play emotionally?”
The 13th-ranked Spartans (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) want to avoid a mental letdown Saturday when they host Illinois (3-2, 1-1) after getting fired up to prepare for and beat the Wolverines and Badgers to open the conference season.
Dantonio plans to coach his team in person for a second straight game after missing two matchups because he had a heart attack and blood clot in his leg. But Dantonio and doctors may relegate him to coaching from a box upstairs Saturday afternoon, following his routine for last week’s game in Ann Arbor.
“Before I can get on the sideline, I have to be able to walk a 2 1/2-3-hour practice,” he said. “I’ll ease back into it. My leg gets a little bit tired as we move forward in the day, so we’ll see how that goes at the end of the week.”
For at least a week, Dantonio will suspend starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker for violating team rules. Rucker has been charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated Sunday.
“It’s unfortunate,” Dantonio said. “But life has consequences, so we have to deal with them and move forward.”
Moving past another win over Michigan, a third straight, is one of the team’s goals this season.
The Spartans didn’t do that very well the last time they won their first six games, in 1999, losing at Purdue and Wisconsin by combined scores of 92-38 in Nick Saban’s last season as their coach.
“Point taken, and it’s been mentioned,” said Dantonio, who was one of Saban’s assistants. “But as I’ve said before, coming into this season, really going all the way back in the summer, we’ve had great leadership at the ground level with our players. So that’s carrying us in some regards. A coach can say whatever he wants to say, but ultimately the players have to believe the message and the players have to preach the message and they have to get involved in the message.”
One of Dantonio’s messages to his players is avoid overlooking any team, starting with the Fighting Illini, this season even though they may be expected to win every game other than an Oct. 30 trip to Iowa.
“The challenges will get more difficult as we move forward because there’s more to play for, and we become a bigger target as well,” Dantonio said. “We need to understand that and move forward.”
(This version CORRECTS to Tuesday in 3rd paragraph.)