EAST LANSING - Michigan State emerges from Saturday's 31-24 victory over Minnesota back in sole possession of first place in the Legends Division, thanks to Northwestern's 28-25 upset of Nebraska.
Michigan State (7-2 overall) is the only team in the Legends Division with a 4-1 conference record. Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan are 3-2 in Big Ten play.
"Win number seven. Any way you cut it, seven wins, 4-1 in the conference and we're right there," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "We survived one playoff win as far as I'm concerned. That's how we have to challenge ourselves and take this. We go to Iowa next week."
The winner of next week's Iowa-MSU game in Iowa City will control its own destiny in the Divisional race, and have the inside track toward a berth in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
As for Saturday's victory over Minnesota, it was Le'Veon Bell's 35-yard touchdown run with 10:58 remaining which helped No. 15 Michigan State hold off upset-minded Minnesota.
Bell ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and Kirk Cousins threw for 296 yards and a pair of TDs. The Spartans (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) trailed 24-21 after three quarters before rallying.
MarQueis Gray threw three touchdown passes to Da'Jon McKnight for the Golden Gophers (2-7, 1-4), who upset Iowa last weekend but were unable to shake up the conference title race again.
"They (Minnesota) got off to a fast start, obviously, but we kept playing," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. "Sometimes it's not pretty but we continued to play. I thought we played well in the third quarter.
"I thought the two things they (Minnesota) did very well were play with emotion and loose plays. We countered with great emotion in the second half."
With the score tied at 24, Bell found running room to the right and went all the way to the end zone to put the Spartans ahead. Minnesota had the ball at the Michigan State 45 with :15 seconds left, but Gray threw an interception.
"I knew we would have to play loose plays on the defensive side of the ball because MarQueis Gray is an outstanding quarterback - a run-pass threat," Dantonio said. "That's exactly what happened. We got him covered and he scrambles and moves around and throws the ball or when he runs with it. You have to contain that guy. We will have our hands full again next year. Credit Minnesota and what they are doing."
Gray was 19-of 32-for a career-high 295 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and McKnight caught nine passes for a career-high 173 yards.
Michigan State entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass defense, but Gray and McKnight didn't seem to notice. The 6-foot-4 quarterback found his senior receiver with a short pass early in the first quarter, and McKnight slipped past three potential tacklers before eventually dragging defensive back Johnny Adams into the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
Cousins answered with a 4-yard scoring pass to Keith Nichol but a fumble by the Spartans' Edwin Baker later in the quarter gave Minnesota the ball at the Michigan State 26. Gray's 13-yard touchdown pass to McKnight put the Gophers back ahead.
"I think it was a bad handoff; one way or another, I'm not sure but it wasn't clean," Dantonio said. "You are always looking for a reaction though so we have to react positively."
The Spartans tied it at 14 on a 1-yard scoring run by Bell in the second quarter, but Michigan State still looked out of sorts. A short while later, the Spartans had the ball inside the Minnesota 20 when there was movement up front for a false start. A frustrated Cousins took the snap and spiked the ball in exasperation, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and knocking his team out of field goal range.
Down 17-14 in the final minute of the half, Michigan State finally found a rhythm, driving 74 yards and taking the lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Todd Anderson with 5 seconds left in the second quarter.
It was Anderson's first career touchdown.
"It was a great execution for our offense," Dantonio said. "Cousins was sharp. He had big plays in that series. It was a huge turn really in the game."
The advantage was short-lived. Minnesota went 80 yards in 11 plays at the start of the third and took a 24-21 lead when Gray found McKnight in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown on third-and-12.
Michigan State had a touchdown wiped out by a replay review later in the third. A sideways pass from Cousins to Bell hit the ground, and Minnesota defensive back Kyle Henderson stopped, assuming the play was over. Bell picked up the ball and ran 60 yards to the end zone, but after further review, officials ruled the pass went forward and changed their call to an incompletion.
Dan Conroy tied it at 24 with a 40-yard field goal 11 seconds into the fourth quarter, after tight end Brian Linthicum made a nice play in the end zone to prevent a possible interception. That drive started at the Minnesota 41 after Trenton Robinson's acrobatic interception. Robinson also made the interception in the final seconds that sealed the win.
"We responded to adversity," Cousins said. "Keith Nichol played phenomenally. Mike Sadler's punting was tremendous, Dan Conroy's field goal helped us and gave us a chance. There was a whole host of people contributing, and that's what it's going to take to do something special this year: a team effort."