Michigan State's 37-20 victory over host Northwestern on Saturday was exactly the kind of primer the 19th-ranked Spartans wanted heading into a brutal stretch.
Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn State await the Spartans (6-1, 3-0) in an unpredictable year for the Big Ten. But as long as MSU continues to get production from players such as running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and kicker Brett Swenson, they should remain a threat. Their three league victories already equal last year's conference win total.
"The difference between this year and last year is that people are making plays when they have to," Hoyer said. "When we have to convert a third-down pass, we do. When Javon needs to pound the ball … when the defense needs to come up with a stop, they did a great job. We're coming together as a whole."
Ringer is having a Heisman Trophy-contending season. He didn't do anything flashy in rushing for 124 yards in 35 carries, but his first-quarter touchdown helped MSU go up 17-0. "He got the tough yards," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.
And No. 22 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1) was in a bind. "The real burden that we put ourselves under was spotting them 17 points," Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher said. "You can't give a team like Michigan State 17 points. We were struggling and we tried to come back on them all day."
Ringer, a 5-9 senior, now has 1,112 rushing yards, breaking the 1,000-yard barrier faster than anyone in school history. He came into the game tied with Connecticut's Donald Brown as the NCAA leader in rushing touchdowns with 12, ranked second in rushing at 164.7 yards a game and ranked second in all-purpose yards at 212 yards a game.
He and Hoyer, who had 169 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-20 passing, exploited Northwestern's defense. Northwestern entered the game ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 12.4 points a game.
"I give all the credit to my offensive line," said Ringer, who scored two touchdowns. "They continued to give me the holes that I needed."
Swenson also had a memorable day, kicking field goals of 26, 42 and 34 yards. He has made 15 in a row, a school record, and is 15-for-16 this season (his only miss was against California in the season opener). Paul Edinger set the previous record of 13 straight field goals in 1998.
Two years ago against Northwestern, Swenson capped the biggest comeback in NCAA history with a 28-yard field goal as the Spartans rallied from a 35-point deficit.
"I have a lot of good memories at the same field-goal post," Swenson said.
Hoyer had a moment he might want to forget. In the first quarter, he went down on a big hit by Northwestern's Corey Wootton. "It was kind of a shock to the system," Hoyer said. "Once I got going and loosened it up, it was fine."
Behind Hoyer and Ringer, MSU never relinquished control. In fact, the Spartans didn't commit a turnover. Since losing their season-opener to California, the Spartans have won six in a row and are bowl eligible. This is their longest winning streak since they closed 1999 with four victories and opened 2000 with three.
"This is definitely a big step for our program," Ringer said. "Just seeing how everything is falling into place on how our season is going thus far, I just thank God for that.
"We're not relaxing at all just because we're bowl eligible. We know we have big tests left throughout the season. We're really starting to get into the thick of the Big Ten. We're expecting big things."