Bring on the Buckeyes.
Despite a sputtering offense, #10 Michigan State and the spectacular Spartans defense grinded out an ugly 14-3 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, remaining perfect in Big Ten play heading into Saturday’s critical showdown with #2 Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship.
With the Legends Division crown locked up, the Spartans (11-1, 8-0) took care of business against the Golden Gophers (8-4, 4-4). But it wasn’t always pretty.
Prior to Saturday’s contest, it seemed MSU’s troubles on offense seemed to be gone for good. Led by an emerging star at running back in Jeremy Langford and an improving prospect at quarterback in Connor Cook, the Spartans erupted for 42 points against Illinois, 29 versus Michigan, 41 against Nebraska and 30 versus Northwestern.
Except for touchdowns on the opening drives of the first and second halves, the Spartans offense stood dormant on Senior Day at Spartan Stadium. The unit just couldn’t come up with a big play on third down, as the team ended the day 0-8 in that category.
“To win a game when you go 0-8 on third down, that shows you how good you can be,” Cook said. “We gotta be better on third down, but we’re resilient and we’ve been resilient all year.”
Perhaps Co-Offensive Coordinator Dave Warner’s opening remarks in the post-game press conference best sum up the offense’s outlook.
“Probably not a championship performance offensively, but hats off to Minnesota. We knew they were a good defense coming in, they really didn’t do anything we didn’t expect,” Warner said. “They obviously packed the box and tried to prevent us from running the football. They played a little bit better defense in the second half, they caused some problems in the run game. We just need to play better offensively obviously as we move forward into next week.
“It is not a regression. It is a good defensive football team and we didn’t play our best offensively,” he continued. “But it’s not something that’s going to keep us from moving forward to next week.”
The MSU offense did not perform well overall on Saturday, but there is no major cause for concern. The Spartans still have one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, Jeremy Langford, who ran for 134 yards and a touchdown against the Golden Gophers. The junior is first in the conference in rushing touchdowns (17) and fifth in rushing yards (1,210) even though he did not become the full-time feature back following his breakout game against Indiana on October 12. Cook is developing as a signalcaller and has the offense ready for the Bucks.
“Guys are confident. You can see the confidence in practice, you can see their confidence in the game,” Cook said. “Even when things aren’t really going our way, our guys remain confident. The coaches know they’re playmakers, they [the players] know they’re playmakers. Confidence isn’t really an issue.”
The offense may face an easier adversary on Saturday in the Ohio State defense, which surrendered 41 points and 603 yards to the Michigan offense in a 42-41 OSU win. MSU held the Wolverines to six points and 168 yards on offense in a 29-6 victory on November 2.
As Cook hinted, the Spartans might be due for a rebound game against the Buckeyes.
“[It’s] like what happened earlier in the year against Purdue. We did not play well against Purdue and I did not have a good game against Purdue, we bounced right back against Illinois and beat Illinois, it was a blowout, our offense was clicking on all cylinders,” Cook said. “We know what we’re capable of.”
Despite the offense’s troubles, MSU’s defense was the story of the game. On a day honoring the team’s 19 seniors and the winningest senior class in school history, the Spartans stifled Minnesota’s offense. Holding the Golden Gophers to a mere three points and 249 yards, Michigan State employed a “bend but don’t break” philosophy that worked to perfection.
The Golden Gophers managed to get into the MSU red zone three times, coming away with just a field goal. The lone score came after a 14-play, 60 yard Minnesota drive in the second quarter. Minnesota reached the MSU 11-yard line on its first drive of the second half, but a tackle for loss and sack pushed the visitors to the 21-yard line and forced Minnesota to try for a field goal, which kicker Chris Hawthorne missed.
Michigan State’s biggest stop of the day came with time winding down in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 11, the Golden Gophers had the ball at the MSU 11-yard line, facing a third-and-10 with under five minutes to play. Shilique Calhoun sacked Mitch Leidner in the backfield, stripping the ball in the process, and Denzel Drone fell on the fumble to seal the deal for the Spartans.
“[Minnesota] got into the red zone a few times, but we made some plays, and grinded it up and we bowed up in the red zone, which is what you want out of a great defense,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “You can bend but don’t break. We got down to the red zone and played great defense and got turnovers. That last turnover was a huge one.”
Following an excellent effort in his final game at Spartan Stadium, senior linebacker Max Bullough honestly assessed the defense’s performance, showing some passion during his post-game press conference.
“Give credit to [Minnesota], they’re a good football team … They were able to run the ball on us, more than we would have liked. We knew what they were doing, we just needed to be more violent in some areas and finish the plays,” Bullough said. “But they can drive down the field as many times as they want, that’s not going to win the game. That might change field possession and time of possession a little bit, but if we don’t let them into the end zone … At the end of the day, they can get as many yards as they want, and we can be mad about them having 180 rushing yards, or whatever it was, but they had three points. They had three points. Let’s think about that. That’s a Big Ten team that’s won a lot of games and they had three points. In the end, that’s what matters. That’s what’s going to win football games.”
Amidst the senior day festivities, one player’s dynamic performance was almost forgotten. Sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes picked off two Minnesota passes in the first half, silencing his teammates after they jokingly teased him this week for having no interceptions coming into Saturday’s contest.
“It was actually kind of ironic. Everyone was saying it’s my turn, even Coach [Harlon] Barnett said I should be getting one this game,” Waynes said. “I saw what we practiced. They basically did what we knew they would and it worked out … I just gotta keep playing now that I finally got one. It’s not something I gotta worry about, not that I was before, but I just gotta step up and make sure I do my part for this team.”
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi certainly noticed Waynes’ pair of picks.
“We’ve talked all year about making plays, and Trae is going to be a great corner in the future and hopefully in a couple years, he’s a Thorpe finalist [nation's top defensive back] as well,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in him and he’s got great hands.”
With the regular season concluded, the Spartans can now turn their attention to Ohio State. Saturday’s contest at the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis promises to be one of the best Big Ten games in quite some time. The matchup pits two teams undefeated in conference play, the first time two squads have emerged from Big Ten play 8-0 since Iowa and OSU in 2002.
The battle everyone wants to see is Ohio State’s offense versus Michigan State’s defense. The Buckeyes feature the best offense in the Big Ten, leading the conference in scoring (48.2 points per game), rushing (321.6 yards per game) and total offense (530.5 ypg). The Spartans have the best defense in the conference, tops in scoring defense (11.8 points allowed per game), rushing (64.8 yards allowed per game) and total defense (237.7 ypg).
The Spartans feel very good about their odds. As many on the team pointed out, the squad has prior experience in this venue. While this will be OSU’s first appearance in the Big Ten Championship, Michigan State reached the title game in 2011, dropping a 42-39 decision to Wisconsin.
“The great thing about it is, it’s like playing in the Super Bowl,” Narduzzi said. “Some guys get to the Super Bowl and it’s their first time there and I think the advantage for Michigan State right now is that we’ve been there before. We know what that locker room looks like, we know what the city of Indianapolis is like, we know how intense it’s going to be and we just need to go out there and play our type of football game. We’ve been there.”
While last Saturday’s win over Minnesota wasn’t Michigan State’s prettiest of the season, it goes down as a “W” in the record books. The Spartans did not suffer any major injuries, the offense is ready to rebound and the defense looks as spectacular as ever heading into Saturday’s showdown with the Bucks. Dantonio’s squad is more confident than ever, and the Spartan Nation should be feeling the same way.