Spartans’ guarantee adds intrigue to finale

Minnesota’s opponent, Michigan State, needs a win Saturday to become bowl eligible.

Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson passes the ball against Illinois on Nov. 10, 2012 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

Mark Vancleave, File Photo

Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson passes the ball against Illinois on Nov. 10, 2012 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

Dane Mizutani

Minnesota has an opportunity to end Michigan State’s season Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

But the Spartans don’t seem too concerned.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio boldly guaranteed a win at his news conference Tuesday.

“When we win Saturday — and I’ll say when — we’ll be a 6-6 football team,” he said, “not climbing out of the cellar as a 2-10 football team.”

Dantonio later retracted his statement in the Big Ten teleconference and said he didn’t guarantee a win — he just wanted his team to take that mind-set into the weekend.

 Michigan State has lost five Big Ten games by a combined 13 points. The Gophers, on the other hand, have clinched a bowl berth, but they’ve done so with four wins in a weak nonconference schedule and two wins over two of the worst teams in the Big Ten.

“They haven’t slipped any,” head coach Jerry Kill said of Michigan State. “They’ve just been in a heck of a lot of close games and played a lot of good [teams]. They’re still Michigan State.”

The Gophers haven’t beaten the Spartans in three years.

Michigan State has struggled in conference play this season and will likely enter this weekend with a back-to-the-wall mentality, as it needs a win to extend its season.

“I wouldn’t say desperate,” senior MarQueis Gray said. “I’d just say hungry. They’ve been to a bowl game for the last few years, and they have to win this game to get bowl eligible. We’re going to get their best shot.”

The Spartans are led by a stout defense that ranks first in the Big Ten in yards-per-game allowed. Stud tailback Le’Veon Bell leads the offense.

“He’s a beast,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. “He’s big, strong, fast, quick, everything. He’s a patient runner. He’s got good vision. And then when he hits [the hole], he really hits it.”

Bell is second in the Big Ten with 126 yards-per-game and has scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. He’s a workhorse for his squad and has carried the ball 315 times — nearly 78 percent of his team’s carries.

“If you’re beat up or not fresh-legged against him, it’s going to be a long day,” Kill said. “We’ve got to make sure that our guys are feeling good and ready for a physical football game.”

Minnesota might struggle most with the physicality of the Spartans’ defense. The Gophers rank ninth in the conference in scoring offense and will face the best defense in the Big Ten.

Minnesota struggled to find any semblance of an offensive attack last weekend at Nebraska, but Gray took snaps at quarterback late in the blowout. He was effective and scored two touchdowns on two attempts.

Gray said he’s unsure of whether the team will return to those tactics this weekend.

“I’m all for it. It’s going back there feeling like I’m home again,” Gray said. “I always want the ball. I don’t know if that’s selfish or not, but that’s always the kind of player I’ve been.”

Minnesota can clinch its first winning season since 2008 with a victory. Rallis said a winning season at 7-5 would mean a little more than a .500 season at 6-6, but he said he hasn’t thought too much about it.

Though Minnesota has clinched a bowl berth and is assured its season will continue after this weekend, true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said he doesn’t want his team to get complacent.

“That’s kind of the trap we don’t want to fall into,” Nelson said. “We don’t want to say, ‘We already made our goal. This game doesn’t matter.’

“We want to say, ‘We got one of our goals, but now we’ve got to make a new goal.’

“And our new goal is to go out and execute against Michigan State and get the seniors a win in their last home game.”