Big Ten

It's only Week 2, but Spartans look to be on playoff track

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It's only Week 2, but Spartans look to be on playoff track

EAST LANSING, Mich. — We’re just two weeks into the college football season, but perhaps it’s not too outlandish to make this statement.

Michigan State is going to the College Football Playoff.

Sure, it’s just a bit of post-victory hyperbole. But truly, Saturday night’s 31-28 win over visiting Oregon did a whole lot of good for Michigan State’s playoff resume. Even those “one game at a time” guys knew how much this game meant. When the College Football Playoff selection committee gets together over the next few months, this will be the game they talk about.

Two top-10 teams collided, and the Spartans emerged victorious. That’s going to mean a lot.

“In my mind, it’s a stepping-stone game,” head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game. “This is the game that pays dividends at the end of the season. This is the game that promotes this brand and this program.

“I think they all count one, I really do. But maybe for 24 hours this one’s a little bit bigger. And then maybe at the end of the season, this pays dividends and moves you forward, you know when people think and talk about strength of schedule and things of that nature. But it doesn’t do you any good if you’re not winning and play well after the fact, either.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Revenge, achieved: Spartans stand strong, beat high-powered Oregon]

Good point, coach. The only way the win over Oregon remains relevant is if Michigan State keeps piling up the wins, keeps itself near the top of the rankings and keeps itself in the playoff conversation.

The thing is, the schedule ahead of these Spartans makes it seem like all that will be a very strong possibility. The next four games come against Air Force, Central Michigan, Purdue and Rutgers. After an in-state tussle with Michigan, it’s Indiana, Nebraska and Maryland before the game of the year in the Big Ten: the Nov. 21 showdown against No. 1 Ohio State. Then the season-finale against Penn State.

But of those games, the Spartans will be favored in all but one. And even if Michigan State falls in Columbus, that’s a potential 11-1 finish, with the only loss coming against the country’s top team — assuming the Buckeyes do what everyone suspects and finishes undefeated — and a win over a top-10 team, to boot.

Beat that resume.

But aside from the months-off actuality of a finalized playoff field, what Saturday’s win impacted, too, was Michigan State’s perception. The nation watched Sparty take down the Ducks. And if they weren’t watching that Rose Bowl win over Stanford two years ago — which was preceded by a Big Ten title game win over Ohio State — or that Cotton Bowl win over Baylor last year, they now know: Michigan State is one of the nation’s premier college football programs, and it deserves to be treated like it.

[MORE BIG TEN: Three TDs for Ezekiel Elliott in Buckeyes' shutout of Hawaii]

“It’s so good for the school, so good for the program, recruiting all that stuff,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “I’d say a win over Oregon at home, the home opener with (ESPN) Gameday here so early in the season, it feels like back in 2013 when we won the Rose Bowl, we won the Big Ten Championship Game. So I’d rank it right up there with those games.”

“I know when I was growing up and I was a State fan, if a team like Oregon came in here, I wouldn’t expect Michigan State to win,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “Nowadays, the last few years, with the coaches we have and the players we have, we expect to win games. That’s why we’re brought here, and that’s why we play for Michigan State. So each game, we expect to win.”

Baylor head coach Art Briles suggested that his program’s lack of “name” status compared to Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State and Alabama kept the Bears out of last year’s playoff field. After Saturday night, it would seem that won’t be something Dantonio has to worry about this year.

But as big as Saturday night was, there is still so much left to be achieved for this Michigan State team. The Spartans have talked about the chip on their shoulder that came with not reaching the ultimate pinnacle of winning a national championship. While they’re happy that Saturday’s win will mean a lot in moving them toward that goal, they know there’s more to do, too.

Two games in, Michigan State looks like College Football Playoff material. But there are 10 regular-season games left to be played.

“I like how we’ve started fast this year,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “We’ve started a lot faster than we have in years prior. It just shows that we’re going in the right direction, we’re doing it at the right pace. Now it’s time to clean up things, there’s a lot of things we still need to clean up. But once we get it all together, it’s like that train, it just keeps going. It was slow at first, but once we get it all together, it’s going to be unstoppable.”

“We didn't play as well last week as we did today. We need to continue to get better. Played against a very high-quality team this week, not that we didn't last week. Just saying we took a step forward,” Dantonio said. “And we look to play our best football in November. I think that's what we've always tried to do. I think that's what wins championships for you, will put you in those opportunities. But we need to continue to progressively just play, and there's some great football teams left that we have to play, there's no question. We have got 10 games left.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.