December 8, 2013 at 9:38 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State rises to the occasion, top of Big Ten

Indianapolis This is what they do, hit and hit and hit again. And then, just when you think they're running out of swings, they hit even harder.

The Spartans just hit it big, as big as imaginable. They kicked in the long-locked door and kicked aside history, and did it the way they've done it all year. Their top-ranked defense rebounded when it had to and their underrated quarterback rose to the moment, and on a remarkable Saturday night, the Spartans finally rose to the Roses.

This was punishing, then puzzling, then right back to punishing, as Michigan State slapped Ohio State, 34-24, to win the Big Ten title. The Spartans posted a school-record 12th victory and snapped the Buckeyes' 24-game winning streak, and denied them a spot in the BCS championship game.

This isn't about Ohio State being exposed (which it was). This is about Michigan State's program under Mark Dantonio being nationally revealed, reaching about the highest point possible. On the field of Lucas Oil Stadium, rose stems and petals were scattered among the confetti as the Spartans stood toward their cheering fans and belted out the fight song. The long hunt and the long haunt are over, as Michigan State grabbed its first Rose Bowl bid in 26 years.

Bathing in glory

If it felt like a cleansing for Spartans fans, well, that's pretty much how it felt for the players and coaches.

"This is legendary," said linebacker Denicos Allen, who made the crucial fourth-down stop. "We're gonna down in history. Whenever they talk about the last Michigan State Rose Bowl team, they're gonna talk about us now. That's legendary to me, because we've been talking about the last Rose Bowl team forever."

By vanquishing the Buckeyes, the Spartans actually did the SEC a favor, allowing Auburn to play Florida State for the BCS championship. Michigan State will face Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and that might be a matchup of the two toughest teams in America.

How tough? The Spartans jumped to a 17-0 lead but couldn't contain Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, and the Buckeyes rolled back with 24 straight points. It looked like a major buckling and it was, then it wasn't, and that's how these resilient Spartans roll. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi came charging down from the press box in the third quarter and joined the team on the sideline, something he seldom does. Michigan State's defense needed a kick, and it got a huge one.

With the Spartans leading 27-24 and only 5:46 remaining, the Buckeyes faced a fourth-and-2 from the Michigan State 39. The way the Spartans were moving the ball behind the passing of Connor Cook, Urban Meyer figured he had to go for it. Miller rolled right and was met squarely by Allen, who stuffed him a yard shy of the first down.

How tough? For all the wild runs by Miller (142 yards) and Hyde (118), Ohio State was only 1-for-10 on third-down conversions and 0-for-2 on fourth downs.

"We stayed the course," Dantonio said. "Again, pretty much like it's been all season long we just sort of battle, battle, battle."

Spartans keep amazing

They battle and they gamble, and that faith between the coaches and players is the bedrock of this rock-solid team. Dantonio tried an onside kick in the fourth quarter after taking the 27-24 lead and it nearly worked. Narduzzi still blitzed plenty, then adjusted as Miller and Hyde plowed up the middle. By the time underrated Jeremy Langford clinched it on a 26-yard touchdown run with 2:16 left, the Buckeyes already were beaten.

"It's going to haunt all of us I imagine for a little while, but thats part of the game," Meyer said. "We got to do things a little bit better. I don't want to take anything away from our opponent, because thats a heck of a team, man. Good players, good scheme."

Michigan State was 9-0 against Big Ten opponents, all nine victories by double digits. That's amazing, and this was an amazingly topsy-turvy game.

The stands were filled with about 70 percent Buckeyes fans, so the Spartans again were outnumbered and outflanked. But they never, ever are outworked or out-toughed. In fact, when they hit back after losing the lead, the Buckeyes were staggered. Their receivers dropped passes, their secondary was horrible, and in the end, they couldn't stop Cook, who was 24-for-40 for 304 yards.

As absolutions go, this was thorough. The Spartans snatched back a game the Buckeyes had appeared to snatch, and gobbled all sorts of redemption. Safety Isaiah Lewis was back in his hometown trying to forever shake the memory of his penalty two years ago that sealed the loss to Wisconsin. This time, he was terrific, and led the Spartans with 13 tackles.

"I'm on top of the world right now," Lewis said. "This is even better than I thought, way better than I thought. Coach (Narduzzi) had to hype us up and remind us we're the No. 1 defense in the country, so just keep playing and doing your thing."

Their thing is to hit as hard as possible as often as possible. And their other thing these days is to dance as wildly as possible afterward.

In the Michigan State dressing room, the rap music blared and players took turns bounding into the middle of the fray, singing along to make the sweetest noise ever. Off to the side, senior linebacker Max Bullough stood in full uniform, and just shook his head.

"I do feel cleansed," he said. "Now I can watch TV, I can watch ESPN, I can watch the Big Ten Network, and they can say whatever they want. We won. We did it. No if's, no buts, no we didn't play someone. We did it. There's nothing you can say anymore."

The only thing left to say is what the Spartans have craved to hear, and earned the right to hear. They're the best in the Big Ten, the toughest team around, no more questions asked.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, left, holds aloft a bunch of roses and lineman Denicos Allen salutes the crowd with one after the Spartans won the Big Ten championship Saturday night in Indianapolis. The Spartans will next play in the Rose Bowl. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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