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Saturday, November 23, 2013
MSU, OSU form desirable pairing in Indy

By Adam Rittenberg

EVANSTON, Ill. -- There are few seasons where rivalry week in the Big Ten feels like an afterthought, but this is one of them.

Can we fast-forward to Dec. 7 already?

The matchup just about every impartial observer wanted in the Big Ten championship is taking place: Ohio State versus Michigan State. It's the Buckeyes' explosive offense against Michigan State's suffocating defense. It's a blossoming Spartans offense against a young but talented Buckeyes defense. It's Urban Meyer against Mark Dantonio. And unlike the first two Big Ten title games, it's a pairing we have yet to see so far this season.

It's also a team with potentially a 24-game winning streak and national title hopes (Ohio State) against one trying to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century (Michigan State).

So we have to endure Week 14, which will provide the standard rivalry fare, including, of course, Ohio State visiting Michigan. But there's a sizable gulf between those programs right now.

The Game takes place Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Game Everyone Wants To See takes place the following week at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Go ahead and find a better conference championship game out there. Florida State-Duke? Love what David Cutcliffe has done, but I'll pass. The Pac-12 championship should be fun, but it will feature teams with multiple losses. The SEC title game will display plenty of future pros, but next week's Iron Bowl is far more compelling.

The Big Ten isn't the nation's best league, but it has the nation's most exciting title game.

"Watching them play, they're a great team," Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said of Ohio State. "They move the ball, they have a good offense, explosive. We have an explosive defense.

"I always wanted that matchup. That's what everybody on this defense wanted, what everybody on this team wanted."

Connor Cook
Connor Cook and Michigan State took care of business at Northwestern, winning 30-6 on Saturday.
The Spartans aren't the only ones. The Big Ten schedule has provided surprisingly few marquee matchups, partly because of a poor crossover schedule and partly because certain teams (looking at you, Northwestern and Michigan) have underachieved.

Ohio State and Wisconsin met way back on Sept. 28 in the only marquee Leaders Division game.

Michigan State (10-1, 7-0 Big Ten) bullied its way through the Legends Division, making what looked like a four-horse race before the season into a runaway. Shaky at best during nonleague play and saddled with questions at both quarterback and running back, the Spartans used the Big Ten season to establish their identity, complementing the nation's top defense with an offense that discovered an identity.

Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford played big roles in MSU's evolution. Not surprisingly, both shined as the Spartans stomped Northwestern 30-6 at Ryan Field. Cook passed for a career-high 293 yards and two touchdowns despite blustery conditions, and Langford added 150 rush yards and two scores.

"It's all confidence," Cook said. "Just watching the games, you can tell guys are confident. Guys are making plays. Receivers are feeding off of other wideouts making plays, J-Lang's feeding off of the receivers.

"We've just found ourselves as an offense."

Last season, Big Ten play exposed the Spartans' flaws, as they lost five league contests by a total of 13 points. Dantonio wanted his players to see that "the inches are there; we've just gotta find 'em."

Michigan State has made up those inches this season. The Spartans now prepare to return to Indianapolis, where they were inches away from a championship and a Rose Bowl trip in 2011 against Wisconsin.

As Langford addressed the media Saturday, a team staffer tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a Legends Division championship hat to wear.

"I love the hat," he said. "Hopefully, we'll switch it out in a couple weeks."

They will if they beat an Ohio State team that has yet to lose under Meyer but hasn't been tested a whole lot. The Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0) made easy work of Indiana on Saturday, storming out to a 28-0 halftime lead behind quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde and winning 42-14.

Like Michigan State, Ohio State hit a few speed bumps early in the season, struggling to beat what has turned out to be a bad Northwestern team and struggling for a half against Iowa. But like Michigan State, the Buckeyes have blossomed behind their own backfield pairing, as Miller and Hyde have been unstoppable in recent weeks.

Most Spartans players avoided Buckeye banter after the game, noting their regular-season finale against Minnesota -- "I feel like we're playing for a BCS game next week," Dantonio said -- but some have followed Ohio State's season and wondered, what if?

There's no need to wonder any more.

"It's going to be a good game," Spartans receiver Tony Lippett said. "It'd been a good game if it was in the regular season. ... They have won 20-something in a row, and that's a good accomplishment, but we're trying to win."

Lippett admits that Ohio State, which won or shared every Big Ten title from 2005-09, had a vacated title in 2010 and hasn't lost in two calendar years, remains the measuring stick in the conference. Allen isn't so sure.

"We're the Legends champs," Allen said. "We're the measuring stick."

The Buckeyes and Spartans will find who measures up in two weeks.

Let the countdown begin.