NCF Nation: Michigan State Spartans

Play that changed the Big Ten race

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
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.”

Early 2015 Big Ten Heisman hopefuls

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon came up one spot short of snapping the Big Ten’s eight-year streak without a Heisman Trophy winner this weekend. The last Big Ten player to win the award was Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006. With all three of this year’s finalists likely shipping off to the NFL, let’s take a look at who could end the Big Ten drought next fall.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/John Sommers IIHeisman pose for 2015? Indiana's Tevin Coleman topped the 2,000-yard mark this season but could leave early for the NFL.
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman is expected to make a decision about turning pro this week. If he makes the unlikely choice to return, he will be the Big Ten’s best returning back. The junior ran for 2,036 yards this year while being largely overshadowed by Gordon, who had a better supporting cast.

Ohio State’s starting quarterback: The name might not be filled in until August, but reserve one spot on this list for whoever is leading the Buckeyes’ offense next year. Will it be J.T. Barrett, who might have earned a trip to New York this year if not for a season-ending injury in Ohio State’s final regular-season game? Will it be two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller? Or perhaps current starter Cardale Jones? The winner of that job will get a cache of playmakers and a team that will be favored to repeat as conference champs.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Gordon’s understudy this season ran for 844 yards and nine touchdowns. He has averaged nearly 7 yards per carry in his two seasons with the Badgers. The offensive line that paved the way for Clement and Gordon is losing three starters, which could hurt his chances. Wisconsin, though, has historically had no problem replacing talent in the trenches.

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He has one more season to lead the Spartans’ evolving offense. Cook loses his top target (Tony Lippett) and top runner (Jeremy Langford) to graduation, but Michigan State is a consistent winner. Leading a team to the playoff with an offense that averages 40-plus points would put Cook in contention for the school’s first Heisman Trophy.
Lessons learned after the final week of the Big Ten’s regular season.

1. J.T. Barrett is as cool as they come: Ohio State’s star quarterback stepped into the limelight with an ultracalm demeanor this season, but his reaction to a season-ending and cringe-worthy broken ankle Saturday showed how unfazed he can be. Barrett showed little, if any, emotion while being carted off the field in the fourth quarter of a 42-28 win over Michigan. He shook hands with a few teammates and told them to go win the game, which they did. Can they keep winning with Barrett already ruled out for next weekend’s Big Ten title game? The offense will undoubtedly take a significant step backward without the Heisman contender. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for another before leaving the game Saturday. Ohio State has plenty of weapons to keep its offense rolling, but good luck finding another signal-caller who has the presence to step in like Barrett has done during his rookie season.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin's win over Minnesota.
 2. Wisconsin is your new Big Ten favorite: The Badgers' offense, led of course by Melvin Gordon, has been one of the hardest to stop in the country during the month of November. Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin’s 34-24 win over Minnesota. The victory clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. Cardale Jones, Barrett’s replacement, has to face a stingy Badgers defense for his first career start. It won’t be easy for the sophomore to keep up with Wisconsin’s offense if Gordon keeps rolling. As impossible as it may have seemed after they lost to Northwestern on the first weekend in October, the 10-2 Wisconsin Badgers could be the favorite to win the conference championship.

3. The Spartan Dawgs haven’t fallen very far: Michigan State’s defense isn’t as dominant as the Rose Bowl-winning crew from a year ago. Ohio State made that much clear in early November. The 2014 unit can still dominate, though. Since giving up 49 points to the Buckeyes, Michigan State has allowed a total of 28 points in three games against Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State. Those three teams rushed for an average of 46 yards. None of those teams will be confused for an offensive juggernaut this season (although the Terps have shown flashes), but the Spartans can still make an average football team look hopeless when trying to reach the end zone.

4. Beckman, Pelini turn down the heat: Bo Pelini won’t be getting free meals in Lincoln this offseason, and the same goes for Tim Beckman in Champaign, but both coaches at least temporarily sidestepped the angry mobs with wins this weekend. Illinois hung 47 points on Northwestern to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in Beckman’s three years. His teams have gone from two to four to six wins, and he’s already promised eight in 2015. Pelini avoided the dreaded fourth loss with a comeback overtime win over Iowa on Friday. If the Cornhuskers can win whatever bowl game they play, they will finish with a 10-3 record, which is at least a small step forward.

5. Rutgers-Maryland has the makings of a Big Ten rivalry: The Big Ten might have built itself a new rivalry Saturday, and the league didn’t even need a patriotic trophy or pregame handshake shenanigans to do it. Rutgers completed the biggest comeback in school history to pick up its seventh win in its first year in the Big Ten. The two conference newcomers finish with identical 7-5 records and seem to be programs on similar footing. The Terps led 35-10 late in the first half at Byrd Stadium before Gary Nova stormed back with his 347 passing yards and four touchdowns. Now that’s how to develop some bad blood.
This week, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun will get his first chance to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to playing with hometown bragging rights on the line.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Scott Boehm/AP ImagesShilique Calhoun looks forward to facing Rutgers, a campus 30 minutes from where he grew up.
 Sixty-three percent of the players listed on the Spartans’ roster grew up in Michigan or Ohio. Each year, those guys get a chance to take on friends from their old neighborhoods or youth league teams in annual battles against Michigan and Ohio State. The chance to beat your home state is one of the many motivational arrows head coach Mark Dantonio has stashed in the quiver that keeps his team feeling perpetually slighted.

“It's very, very special when you have an opportunity to play against your home state,” Dantonio said. “That’s important this week for Shilique.”

On Saturday, the junior pass-rushing terror from Middletown, New Jersey get his first swing against Rutgers, the Big Ten newcomers with a campus 30 minutes from where Calhoun grew up.

Calhoun passed on a Rutgers scholarship and the chance to play in front of his family on a regular basis when he chose to play for Dantonio in 2011. Rutgers was a Big East school at the time, and Calhoun had no expectations of squaring off with the Jersey-laden Scarlet Knights during his college career.

“It’s going to be a statement game for me on the reason why I chose to come here,” Calhoun said. “It’s one of those games. That state game is where you’re from. The Ohio guys have Ohio State. The Michigan guys have Michigan. Finally, we have our moment too.”

The 6-foot-5, 256-pound Calhoun has had his share of other notable moments in his three seasons on the field in East Lansing. He scored three touchdowns and racked up 7.5 sacks last season en route to being named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year. As a second-team All American, he was expected to be one of the most prolific pass rushers in the country this season and earn himself a big paycheck when he jumped to the NFL the following year.

The 2014 season didn’t start at same breakneck pace for Calhoun. After the buzz around him quieted in late September, he started to find his stride again. Heading into the final home game of the season, he is one sack shy of matching his 2013 total.

Dantonio and Calhoun’s teammates say the added pressure and national spotlight didn’t change the way the defense’s star prepared. The loss of several key starters, though, left Calhoun with the feeling that he needed to do more for his team than he had in the past.

“I was trying to do too much, do above my job,” he said. “I think that’s what really hurt me. Now I understand this is the system. This is why I’ve been successful, because I’m trying to fit into the system. It’s allowing not only myself, but my teammates to make plays. As the season progresses, it starts to get easier and easier for me.”

Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin, who has the pleasure of squaring off with Calhoun on a daily basis, said his practice adversary was trying to add a slew of new weapons to his pass-rushing repertoire at the start of the season. When he pared down the list of new tricks and got back to what he did best, Conklin noticed the difference.

The spotlight on Michigan State's team has faded, too, in the two weeks since their loss to divisional rival Ohio State. The Spartans dropped out of the race for a playoff spot and slipped below college football's national radar. Calhoun and the defense responded in their following game by holding Maryland to six rushing yards during a 37-15 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

The win squashed any theories that Michigan State’s motivation would peter away without the goal of playing for a national title hanging in front of it. Conklin said it took a few days for morale to return to the team after the loss to the Buckeyes. When they started hitting each other again, they decided they had plenty left to achieve.

“After everyone stepped back for a second and reevaluated, we realized, really, we’re not in a bad place,” Conklin said. “We didn’t do what we set out to do, but it’s not like we’re going to the Outback Bowl or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. We’re still going to a Rose Bowl-type of game, or we can. That’s still a great accomplishment.”

The Spartans(8-2) checked in at No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, leaving them in good position to earn a trip to one of the New Years Day bowls from the selection committee if they win their final two games of the season.

That begins Saturday against Rutgers in a big game for Calhoun. He said when he first learned that Rutgers was joining the conference this season, he hoped that the two teams would meet in New Jersey this season.

Michigan State will travel to Rutgers next season, but it isn’t clear if Calhoun will still be around to play in front of a home crowd. He remains one of the top pro prospects in the Big Ten and a potential early pick in this spring’s NFL draft. Many assume that this Saturday will be his final game at Spartan Stadium, but Calhoun cautioned that he hasn’t made a decision yet.

"You know what happens [when] you assume," he said. "I'm just going to leave it at that. We'll see what happens. Right now, I'm just excited about playing Rutgers this year."

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
Five observations from Saturday’s games around the Big Ten:

1. Wisconsin is the team to beat in the Big Ten West. The Badgers might have stumbled early this season, but they proved in their 59-24 win over Nebraska on Saturday that their recent offensive dominance wasn’t just a matter of picking on the little guys. Wisconsin is averaging 44 points per game in its current five-game win streak, after hanging 59 on Nebraska. Dave Aranda’s defense also acquitted itself as an elite unit. The Cornhuskers managed only 180 total yards, and all four of their scoring drives started in Wisconsin territory. A trip to Iowa and a season finale against Minnesota are far from “gimmes,” but right now, it would be a surprise if anyone other than Wisconsin and Ohio State met in the Big Ten title game.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJ.T. Barrett dashed through the Minnesota snow for 189 yards and a touchdown to keep No. 8 Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
2. The Big Ten should be well represented at the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Melvin Gordon’s 408-yard performance in the snow -- in three quarters, nonetheless -- will be the stuff of legend in Wisconsin for a long time. It almost certainly punched his ticket to New York City as a Heisman finalist. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also deserves to be a serious candidate for the award. He ran for 189 yards on another snow-covered field in Minnesota, threw three touchdown passes and continued to march his Buckeyes toward a division title and a shot at a coveted playoff spot with a 31-24 win. He and Gordon both deserve to be finalists, which would probably leave the supposedly talent-deprived Big Ten with more players at the ceremony than any other conference.

3. Christian Hackenberg isn’t comfortable in Penn State’s offense. Opposing coaches and defenders have been nearly unanimous in anointing the sophomore quarterback a future pro. He hasn’t looked like the part recently for the Nittany Lions, and you can’t point to a poor offensive line as an excuse this week. He was 12-for-26 with two interceptions and missed a few wide open receivers in a 30-13 win over Temple on Saturday, despite getting good protection. Hackenberg has now thrown 12 interceptions and only seven touchdowns this season. He came to Happy Valley to play in Bill O’Brien’s pro-style offense and so far has clashed with the scheme James Franklin is trying to install. He and Franklin need to get on the same page if the Penn State offense is going to improve in the future.

4. Michigan State’s defense is still dangerous. The Spartan Dawgs responded well after giving up 49 -- tied for the most points the program has allowed since Mark Dantonio arrived -- a week ago in the loss to Ohio State. Michigan State held a hot-and-cold Maryland offense to 6 rushing yards and only one touchdown while the game was still in doubt in a 37-15 win. Safety R.J. Williamson had a pick-six, and Kurtis Drummond set up a field goal with another interception on the Terrapins' opening drive. On a night when Michigan State’s offense wasn’t quite as explosive as it has been for most of the season, the defense proved it can still be relied on to deliver a good performance.

5. Expect the unexpected in November. Chaos might be the one constant in college football, and the Big Ten wasn’t immune to it this weekend. Northwestern helped give the league its first win over Notre Dame in 2014 by outlasting the Fighting Irish in a sloppy 43-40 overtime win. The Cats, 17.5-point underdogs Saturday, have had an inexplicably up-and-down season. They beat Notre Dame and Wisconsin but have had some ugly losses. A week before putting up 43 on the road, Northwestern’s offense mustered only nine points in a one-point loss to Michigan. Despite erratic play, Pat Fitzgerald has his team within reach of a bowl game if it can beat Purdue and Illinois to finish the season. Nine Big Ten teams already have enough wins to make it to the postseason, with the Wildcats, Michigan and Illinois all still alive.
Michigan State was only a few minutes from taking a touchdown lead over Ohio State into halftime last Saturday night when the big-play bug struck again. And again.

With 3:19 left in the second quarter, Buckeye receiver Michael Thomas shook free of a tackler near the 30-yard line and took J.T. Barrett’s slant pass 79 yards for a game-tying touchdown. It was the longest play a Michigan State defense has allowed since the end of the 2011 season. Two minutes and five players later, Barrett struck again. This time it was Devin Smith sneaking behind the Spartan secondary for a 44-yard touchdown pass. The late 14-point swing gave the Buckeyes a lead from which they never looked back.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith/Darian Hicks,
AP Photo/Al GoldisDarian Hicks and the Spartans' defense have struggled with allowing the big plays this season.
 “Big plays lead to momentum shifts, and that’s why we have to do a better job of eliminating them,” Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said after the game. “That’s something we harp on every week and throughout camp, explosive plays.”

Explosive plays are the reason Ohio State jumped to No. 8 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings after the 49-37 win, and the reason why Michigan State will be fighting for bowl game scraps during the final three weeks of the regular season. Five times the Buckeyes ran plays that picked up 40-plus yards in East Lansing last weekend. All five of them (which accounted for 268 of Ohio State’s 568 offensive yards) occurred on drives that ended in touchdowns.

Wins helped cover the cracks in Michigan State’s proud defense earlier this season, but broken plays have been an issue throughout the year. Opponents have gained 40 or more yards on a single play 17 times against Michigan State in 2014. Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more.

Giving up the long ball is a major change for a team that has built its recent success on an air-tight defense that avoids the mistakes that so often lead to losses. It’s a problem that threatens the defensive philosophy that has been largely responsible for Michigan State’s climb to a conference powerhouse.

“I don’t know,” said cornerback Darian Hicks, who got turned around in man coverage on Thomas’ 79-yard score. “We have new starters here. Obviously our team is not the same as last year.”

Last year’s Rose Bowl champions used an aggressive, suffocating defense to carry its fledgling offense early in the year. Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi use a run-stuffing system based on frequently leaving its defensive backs on an island against opposing receivers. It’s a gamble, but the Spartans typically tip the odds in their favor with superior, well-trained athletes.

Four starters are gone from 2013’s stacked deck in the back seven. They include the Jim Thorpe Award winner at cornerback, two third-team All-Americans at linebacker and a first team All-Big Ten pick at safety. Their replacements have held their own for the most part this season, but against Michigan State’s two toughest opponents (Oregon and Ohio State), the defense surrendered 95 points. When the other team has playmakers that can match Michigan State’s athleticism, the Spartans have been burned this fall.

Narduzzi said he tried to keep his defensive backs out of one-on-one battles more often against the Buckeyes, but he didn’t want to abandon the principles that have made his defense so successful.

“Our kids have confidence in what we do,” he said. “... My thing is man, but we do play a lot of zone. [Ohio State did] a good job, and we weren't getting reroutes. They did a nice job. You have also got to get enough guys up there to stop the run. It's a fine line.”

Michigan State has leaned more on its offense this fall to hit some big plays of its own. The style change means that, at times, the defense spends more time on the field than in past years and gets stuck in more difficult position. The offense continued its prolific output with 37 points against the Buckeyes, but the players on that side of the ball didn’t feel like they did enough either.

“We put up 500 yards of offense, but when it comes down to it, we have to score more points than the other team,” tackle Jack Conklin said. “No matter where the defense is or how well they’re doing, they held us in games last year and this year at certain times. We need to step up to help them out, and we fell short.”

One loss to one of the country’s top teams is no reason to rethink the risk-reward benefits of Michigan State’s defense. That approach has been the foundation with which the Spartans won 20 of their past 23 games.

The loss and the big plays that brought it on are a reminder, though, if not a warning. As Michigan State continues to evolve, Dantonio and Narduzzi must recruit and develop the very best in the secondary if they want to continue the same defensive approach. The Spartan defense has to find a way to stop elite playmakers and beat the types of teams that help you grow from a perennial Big Ten power to a national championship contender.
It’s been 97 weeks since the Michigan State Spartans woke up on a Monday morning without the motivation of a potential championship to get them out of bed.

The carrot of a championship trophy dropped in front of Michigan State’s nose, as it does for most college football programs beginning their offseason, the day after winning the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. A championship of one variety or another remained realistically in reach from then until Saturday night when No. 14 Ohio State and rising star J.T. Barrett snatched the carrot away with a 49-37 win in East Lansing.

"It’s hard. It’s something that’s new for us," said Spartans tackle Jack Conklin. "We’ve been winning and winning."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesQB Connor Cook and Michigan State must find a way to rebound from their second loss of the season.
Sure, this is college football and no team should abandon hope until the final crack in the window of opportunity is sealed shut. Crazy things happen on Saturdays in November. But the Spartans now need Ohio State to lose two of its next three games (against Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan) to crawl back into the Big Ten championship picture. Even an improbable conference title would still leave Michigan State with virtually no chance of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Spartans aren’t alone in their despair following an "Elimination Saturday" that lived up to its billing. Four former legitimate playoff contenders start this week in need of a miracle to get back into the running. That leaves Mark Dantonio (along with the coaches from Auburn, Kansas State and Notre Dame) among the first to grapple with one of the biggest concerns raised when the NCAA scrapped its previous BCS format for a four-team playoff: Once you’re no longer playing for a title shot, what’s the point?

Dantonio and his players showed no signs that they were unwilling to pull themselves off the mat in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss. The coach said he still considers the incessant discussion about playoff spots a good thing for the sport and no different than the buzz that surrounded BCS bowls in past years.

Finding a way to move past goal-crushing, soul-crushing losses is nothing new for the sport.

"I think you play it out," Dantonio said when asked what remained for his team to acheive. "Right now the most important thing is that we only have one loss in the Big Ten and an important thing right now is, don't get two. That's what we can control. We're a one-loss team right now. Don't get two losses."

The ceiling, Dantonio admitted, has slipped from a great season to a good one for the 2014 Spartans. The task now is making sure it doesn’t slip further by taking care of Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State to close out the regular season.

It wasn’t long ago that a 10-2 record with both losses to potential playoff teams would be deemed outstanding in East Lansing, far better than good. Showing up to play without championships on the line was the norm for much of Dantonio's time as the head of the program. The Spartans haven’t been among the elite long enough to forget the middle class, one-week-at-a-time work ethic that helps a team recover from tough losses.

"I’ve been here when he had a couple bad seasons. I don’t’ want to have that season again," senior running back Jeremy Langford said. "We can’t determine what happens with Ohio State and all them. We’ve got three more games guaranteed, and we have to go get those wins."

This is what it means to handle success. Can you weather the magnified failures that come with it? The rest of November will be Michigan State’s first real chance since climbing into the top tier of college football programs in the middle of last season to prove they can sustain the focus it takes to win in the wake of failure. Langford said it was up to the seniors, who remember when championships didn't dangle in front of their noses, to make sure the rest of the team continues to move forward.

On Monday morning Langford and his teammates pulled themselves out of bed and started preparing for the next opponent for the 98th time since winning the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Life goes on, and so must the Spartans.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- This isn't your father's Big Ten anymore. Ohio State is officially the top dog in America's blue-collar conference, and it got there by lighting up the Spartan Stadium scoreboard on Saturday night.

The Buckeyes, behind a huge night from redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, beat No. 8 Michigan State 49-37 in East Lansing while establishing itself as the Big Ten's best chance to reach the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes rolled up 568 yards of total offense against the typically stingy Spartan defense. The 49 points Michigan State surrendered tied the most a Mark Dantonio team has allowed at Michigan State.

Ezekiel Elliott ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns for the Buckeyes, and Barrett provided his team's other five scores. Michigan State senior Jeremy Langford ran for 137 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort. A holding penalty negated a fourth score, which would have given the Spartans a 14-point lead late in the second quarter.

How the game was won: Ohio State scored twice on its final six plays of the first half, both courtesy of long touchdown receptions, to take its first lead of the game. The Spartans were unable to recover in the second half and sputtered on offense until the Buckeyes had built a comfortable fourth-quarter lead.

Game ball goes to: Barrett, who took a significant step forward Saturday night by showing he could handle a big moment. The rookie threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more during a mistake-free night against the Spartans defense. He finished with 386 total yards of offense.

What it means: The Buckeyes should be heavy favorites in their three remaining games, which gives them a clear path to the Big Ten title game. And after that, who knows? Michigan State will need Ohio State to stumble to get back into contention for a Big Ten championship, which makes a repeat trip to Indianapolis unlikely.

Playoff implication: The Spartans had the Big Ten’s best shot, but at least four teams -- and as many as six -- ranked ahead of No. 14 Ohio State lost this weekend. The Buckeyes pass the eye test, but the conference will probably need help from elsewhere in the country to land a team in the first final four.

Best play: Barrett's best throw of the night came with just under a minute remaining in the first half. A play-action fake gave Devin Smith just enough space behind the Spartans' secondary, and Barrett dropped a ball into his arms six yards deep in the end zone. The score gave Ohio State a 28-21 lead, and it never looked back.

video What's next: Michigan State gets the two Big Ten newcomers in back-to-back weeks before finishing the season in Happy Valley. Ohio State has to travel to Minnesota for its toughest remaining test before a possible Big Ten championship game appearance. The Golden Gophers are coming off an impressive win over Iowa.

Video: Dr. Lou's Picks

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7

Lou Holtz makes his predictions for Notre Dame-Arizona State, Kansas State-TCU, Oregon-Utah and Ohio State-Michigan State.
Looking back now, it’s the type of catch that seems routine for Michigan State receiver Tony Lippett. Early in the first quarter of the Spartans’ first Big Ten game of the 2013 season, at Iowa, Lippett pulled a jump-ball pass from quarterback Connor Cook up and over a defender 20 yards downfield. Ho-hum. Michigan State didn’t even score on the drive.

Nonetheless, that’s the play circled in the mind of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner as a turning point for a group that enters this weekend's marquee matchup against Ohio State as the country's fifth-best scoring offense at 45.5 points per game this season. It sparked a rise unparalleled by any unit of any team in college football during the last 14 months.

[+] EnlargeDave Warner
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesWith Dave Warner calling the plays, Michigan State won the Rose Bowl last season and is ranked fifth in the country in scoring this season.
“For whatever reason, that sort of ignited us,” said Warner, who was promoted to his current position prior to the 2013 season. “From that point forward our receivers were making those 50-50 catches, the difficult ones. That became the habit, and they felt good about themselves.”

Those kinds of catches were hard to come by during the first few weeks of 2013. The receivers struggled to make plays and Michigan State struggled to find a quarterback who could help them. Catches like Lippett's helped build confidence between the receivers and Cook as he settled into the starting role, which in turn made Warner comfortable opening up the playbook he and the rest of the offensive coaching staff had refurbished months earlier.

Michigan State's offense in 2012 was spartan, void of luxuries like explosive plays and game-breaking performances. Head coach Mark Dantonio knew it was in need of some modernization. He started by hiring former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and handing the play-calling reins to Warner, who had coached the quarterbacks for their first six years together in East Lansing.

“We were very basic. We were very much pound the football,” said Warner, who played quarterback for Syracuse in the 1980s. “We really weren’t very creative. He saw that we needed to change that.”

The offensive staff combed through film of teams from around the country, cherrypicking plays and concepts they liked. Jet sweeps, misdirection, back-shoulder fades -- all foreign concepts for an offense that had finished the previous season averaging 20 points per game, 110th among FBS teams. Warner added them all to the offense he still classifies as a strictly pro-style attack.

The end result is an offense that scores 45.5 points per game with a Maxwell Award candidate at quarterback and enough options around him to keep opposing defenses guessing who will break the next big play. On Saturday, that unit will trade blows with an Ohio State offense that has been just as potent. Both teams are redefining what it takes to win in the traditionally low-scoring, slug-it-out-in-the-trenches Big Ten.

Only one game this season (Baylor vs. TCU) has featured a matchup between two teams that score more often than the Spartans and Buckeyes. Amid all those points, the Spartans and Buckeyes refuse to define themselves with anything but the Midwest, blue-collar identity of their collective past. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he expects Saturday’s game to be like two sledgehammers smashing into each other. Dantonio said he refuses to let offensive success make his team go soft.

“We want to be grounded in hard work,” Dantonio said. “That’s who we need to be. That’s just a part of the mentality that has to exist here.”

To preserve a grinding attitude while building an offense that no longer has to grind, Dantonio needed coaches who weren't afraid of creativity but understood that basic philosophy. He turned to Warner.

The earliest roots of Michigan State’s offensive turnaround, and the success that has followed, lie far deeper than Lippett’s catch at Iowa. Follow the string far enough back and eventually it lands at the feet of college football legend Johnny Majors.

The story goes like this: Near the end of his coaching career, Majors -- who won three SEC championships at Tennessee and a national title at Pittsburgh -- was holding court at a coaches’ convention in the mid-1990s. He told his rapt younger colleagues that he would never trust anyone but a former quarterback to call plays during his games. Only a quarterback, he reasoned, truly knows what it’s like to control an offense. One of the men listening was Glen Mason, who was treading on thin ice at Kansas after a 6-5 record a year earlier.

“I wasn’t really happy with what was going on. I thought we should be better at Kansas,” Mason said. “I thought what he said made sense, so I thought, let’s give it a try.”

Upon returning to Kansas, Mason took the play-calling duties away from his veteran offensive coordinator and handed them to the only former quarterback on his staff -- Warner. Despite a rough start to the year offensively, the JayHawks finished 10-2 that season, scoring 42 points in a win over No. 4 Colorado and 51 points against UCLA in the Aloha Bowl.

“Under Mase we were the old Woody Hayes football, ran the ball a ton,” Warner said. “In '95 we made a major transition to be more balanced. We did struggle early on. As we moved forward we got things rolling.”

The similarities between that year and the 2013 season aren’t lost on Warner. He helped Michigan State power through a rocky stretch (“To say we struggled is a major understatement,” he said) in early September and finish last season as Rose Bowl champion. He said building confidence -- a feeling the coaches say is rooted in their hard-working mentality -- was the key to getting the Spartans' offense where it is now.

During Warner’s first season as a play-caller in Kansas, the team’s up-and-coming secondary coach, a young Mark Dantonio, was taking note. When it came time for his own major transition at Michigan State, Dantonio knew where to turn.

Michigan State offense doing its share

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5

AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State’s Jeremy Langford consistently posts 100-yard games against Big Ten opponents.

Defense is often the first word associated with Michigan State football. The Spartans are one of two teams (Alabama) to finish each of the previous three seasons ranked in the top 10 in points per game allowed and defensive efficiency. The offense was often an afterthought, but things are different this season.

Michigan State is averaging the fifth-most points per game in the FBS (45.5) and has already scored one more offensive touchdown (47) than it had all of last season. Its offense is adding nearly seven more points to its net scoring margin than in any other year since Mark Dantonio was hired before the 2007 season.

What has made the offense so successful?

A 3-headed monster
The Spartans are one of three FBS teams (Mississippi State and Marshall) this season that are averaging at least 250 passing and rushing yards per game. They are also one of three FBS teams (USC and Western Michigan) that have an 1,800-yard passer, an 800-yard rusher and an 800-yard receiver.

Connor Cook has led the way for Michigan State’s passing game. He leads the Big Ten in Total QBR (81.9) and yards per attempt (9.4) this season. Cook has also been the best downfield passer in the conference; he has eight more completions on passes thrown 15 yards or longer than any other Big Ten player.

On the ground, Jeremy Langford has been one of the most consistent backs in the nation. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 consecutive conference games, tied with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey for the longest streak in at least the last 10 seasons. Langford has averaged 3.0 yards after contact per rush in conference play this season, second-best among Big Ten running backs (min. 50 attempts).

The third piece of Michigan State’s dynamic trio is wide receiver Tony Lippett. He has a Big Ten-high 889 receiving yards and is averaging 21.2 yards per reception. On passes thrown 15 yards or longer, he leads the conference in receptions (16) and touchdowns (six).

So, although Michigan State’s defense has received the bulk of the attention, it now has an offense to hold up its part of the bargain. On Saturday, the Spartans may need that offense to produce against an Ohio State team that has scored at least 50 points in five of its last six games.

Michigan student paper throws in the towel

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
Unlike the school's football team, the Michigan Daily has had a heck of a year.

The campus newspaper has provided excellent coverage throughout this tumultuous time in Ann Arbor -- and on Saturday, it served its readers once more. As rival Michigan State began to pour it on against the Wolverines, the paper's Twitter feed asked its followers if it was time to bail on the tweets.

Ten minutes later, they had their answer.

Michigan State gets to keep the Paul Bunyan trophy and bragging rights for another season.

The Spartans (7-1) beat in-state rival Michigan 35-11 on Saturday in a performance that looked like an absent-minded bulldozer slowly rolling over an injured animal. It wasn't particularly fast or flashy, but the end result -- a flattened Wolverine team -- never seemed to be in doubt.

Connor Cook and the country's third best scoring offense didn't dazzle. Cook (12-of-22 for 227 yards) connected with Tony Lippett on a 70-yard scoring play on a day that was otherwise relatively slow. His counterpart, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, threw two interceptions and fumbled once to kill any real chance his team might have had of hanging around.

Michigan drops to 3-5 with the loss and 1-6 against one of its biggest rivals since Lloyd Carr retired seven years ago.

How the game was won: The formula for success in East Lansing didn't change much from Michigan State's win a year ago. The Spartans held Michigan to fewer than 200 total yards of offense. The Wolverines rushing attack produced zero yards in the first half and continued its steady implosion in the game's final 30 minutes. Michigan State's offense wasn't at its best Saturday, but it didn't need to be.

Game ball goes to: Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford had three rushing touchdowns and 195 all-purpose yards. He trudged his way through most of his 33 carries until breaking loose late in the first half. He contributed 48 of the 73 yards on an efficient scoring drive that helped the Spartans close the half with a 14-3 lead. Langford has quietly rushed for at least 100 yards in five straight games.

What it means: Was this the last straw for Brady Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor? You could make the argument it’s just adding to a haystack that engulfed the camel long ago. Michigan will have to win its next three to become bowl eligible before the regular-season finale against Ohio State.

Playoff implications: Michigan State remains a contender with a survive-and-advance victory, though it didn’t stack up many style points against the Wolverines. Crazy things can happen in rivalry games, and the Spartans managed to avoid any season-stunting mishaps. Heading into November, they’re still contenders.

videoBest play: Lippett's ninth touchdown reception of the season delivered a knockout punch to Michigan midway through the third quarter. Cook threw a back-shoulder dart to Lippett, who spun Michigan safety Delano Hill in a circle. One quick stop-and-start move gave the senior receiver a clear path down the sideline. The one-play drive gave the Spartans a 28-3 lead.

What's next: The Spartans get a week off to prepare for the Big Ten’s biggest matchup before the championship game. They host Ohio State on Nov. 8 with first place in the East Division likely on the line. Michigan returns home next weekend to take on an Indiana team that is coming off its bye week.

MSU fans implore U-M to 'Keep Brady Hoke'

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
Embattled Michigan head coach Brady Hoke is on the hottest of seats this season, but he's found some (snarky) support from an unlikely source: Michigan State fans.

Before Saturday's in-state rivalry matchup between Michigan and Michigan State, a banner was spotted in the East Lansing sky.

As students poured in to prepare for the game, it became apparent that #KeepBradyHoke was a coordinated effort. The front row of the student section literally spelled it out for us.

Here's a look, straight from Michigan State football's official Twitter account.

Brash move, "Little Brother." The Spartans are 17-point favorites, the biggest spread they've ever had against the Wolverines.

Michigan's block 'M' painted Spartan green

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
Let's face it: It's a good time to be a Spartans fan in the state of Michigan. As Brian Bennett detailed on Tuesday, "Little Brother" has owned the Wolverines lately -- and is a huge favorite to continue that domination when the two schools meet on Saturday.

Just how thorough is that Michigan State domination?

Even the iconic block "M" on Michigan's campus has been painted green.

Yes, it appears some MSU fans decided they would sneak into Ann Arbor overnight and not only cover the "M" in green paint, but also add the letters "S" and "U" to the end of it. According to the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, the block "M" has been in place since 1953 and is highly visible to students walking to and from classes.

As if walking to an early-morning class wasn't bad enough already...

Michigan VandalismTwitter/@ByAZuniga
Michigan VandalismTwitter/@ByAZuniga