Michigan State was in the driver’s seat. For a few brief moments the scoreboard at Spartan Stadium showed the home team with a two-touchdown lead over East Division rival Ohio State late in the first half.
A holding penalty eliminated what at first looked like a rushing touchdown for Spartans running back Jeremy Langford. Not long after, the Buckeyes wiped clean the rest of Michigan State’s lead and its chance at a second consecutive Big Ten title, making the holding call a pivotal play in the race for a conference championship.
Langford’s run would have given his Spartans a 28-14 lead with under four minutes to play in the second quarter and their second touchdown in less than 60 seconds. The drive, which started inside the red zone thanks to a fumbled kickoff, was a chance to dump a truckload of pressure on the Buckeyes and their rookie quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Instead, All-American center Jack Allen hooked his arm around an Ohio State defender and dragged him down to open the lane for Langford. It was a clear penalty, which set up a third-and-long Michigan State couldn’t convert. Michael Geiger missed a field goal on the following play, and the Spartans missed a great chance to push Ohio State’s back to the wall.
“All of the sudden momentum just flipped,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said following the game. “If we go in at 28-14 there's a different feel, there's a little bit more like, 'OK, we've got them.' But they hit two big plays in that three minutes. So you deal with it."
Barrett connected with Michael Thomas on the next play for a 79-yard, game-tying touchdown. He would throw another deep ball for another score before the end of the half to complete a 21-point swing in the final minutes of the second quarter. Ohio State took its touchdown lead into the locker room and never looked back en route to a 49-37 win.
If Michigan State doesn’t get caught for holding, it could have pressed the Buckeyes and perhaps taken a two-score lead into the second half. To push the hypothetical further, maybe Barrett doesn’t play as loose without those two late scores and perhaps the Spartans hang on to win. They would be the one-loss team playing an overmatched Wisconsin squad in Indianapolis. With their only loss coming on the road to No. 2 Oregon, perhaps the selection committee sees them as worthy of one of four playoff spots.
On the other side, Urban Meyer is pinned with his first regular-season conference loss in the Big Ten and his third year without a conference title. A second loss kills the Buckeyes' chance of a playoff berth. Meyer is suddenly human, and the perception of the league’s top two teams is flipped.
Instead, the referee threw a flag between Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin and potentially altered the Big Ten season.
"Who knows what could have happened,” Conklin said after the game, “if we could have come out and finished that drive.”