Sunday, December 8, 2013
What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 15
By Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett
Three lessons from the Big Ten championship game.
Connor Cook and the Spartans proved beyond a doubt that Michigan State was the best team in the Big Ten.
1. Michigan State is the Big Ten's best finisher: Many counted out the Spartans after Ohio State erased a 17-0 lead to take a 24-17 advantage midway through the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Buckeyes had finished off opponents throughout the season with their two-headed running attack and powerful line. But Michigan State also had been terrific late in games, outscoring opponents 185-56 in the second half and 91-27 in the fourth quarter. The Spartans made the necessary corrections, scoring 17 unanswered points to outlast Ohio State and secure a league championship. They limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter and mounted touchdown drives of 90 and 61 yards. And like they did in every regular-season Big Ten game, they won by double digits, leaving no doubt about the the league's best and most resilient team in 2013.
2. Ohio State's flaws finally caught up to it: Sure, it may sound weird to talk about the weaknesses of a team that won 24 straight times. But the Buckeyes never were a perfect team despite their amazing streak of perfection. For a heavyweight power, they were surprisingly light on star power at linebacker outside of Ryan Shazier. Safety Christian Bryant's midseason injury created major vulnerabilities in the secondary. The offense lacked consistent receiving threats other than Philly Brown. "We know what our weaknesses are," center Corey Linsely said. "They're obvious." The Michigan game and, to a lesser extent, the win at Illinois exposed some of those troubles. And when Ohio State finally played a powerhouse on its own level in Michigan State, its Achilles' heels caused it to stumble. The Buckeyes came out flat on the big stage in falling behind 17-0, and they only really played well for about a 20-minute stretch before letting the Spartans score the final 17 points. Ohio State deserves all respect for its winning streak, and this team is fully capable of winning a BCS game. But its flaws proved fatal in the quest for a national championship.
3. Connor Cook is the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the country: If anyone pegged Cook to be the MVP of the Big Ten title game before the season -- his immediate family members excluded -- hop on the first flight to Vegas. Cook exceeded all expectations in guiding the Spartans to a perfect mark in Big Ten play, and he shined in the brightest lights Saturday night, passing for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns on 24 of 40 attempts. Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told ESPN.com that Cook's growth could be seen each week and that Cook's confidence in himself never wavered, even after low moments like a Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan State hasn't simply found a serviceable game manager to complement its defense. It has found a championship quarterback who oozes moxie and doesn't back down from challenges. Cook began championship week by introducing himself on a conference call with reporters. Everyone knows who he is now.