East Lansing — As Michigan State prepares for its biggest game of the season, one thing is clear — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio will not be giving a daily update on the health of quarterback Connor Cook.
The fifth-year senior injured his right throwing shoulder in the first half of Saturday’s 24-7 victory over Maryland and did not play in the second half. After the game, Cook said he would be fine for No. 9 Michigan State’s showdown with No. 2 Ohio State this weekend and his coach was just as confident.
On Sunday night in his weekly teleconference, however, Dantonio shut down any line of questioning about Cook’s status.
“I don’t talk about injuries,” he said.
Dantonio was then asked if that meant Cook was injured.
“No. Don’t twist the words,” he said. “You know the deal.”
In other words, there will be no playing around this week. Michigan State, which has looked to this game all year, heads into the showdown all business. There’s plenty at stake — the winner will be in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East with a clear path to the conference championship game and potentially a spot on the College Football Playoff.
And for the Spartans, there’s the minor detail of avenging last season’s 49-37 loss at home to the Buckeyes. It knocked Michigan State out of the running in the Big Ten and helped propel Ohio State to a conference championship and ultimately the national title.
“I think everybody understands it’s a big game,” Dantonio said. “And I think we wanted to focus on the moment until we got to a position like this.
“I think everybody understands that we’re in a playoff-type situation here and we need to win this football game, and there’s a great challenge down there. Much like every other challenge we’ve been in, there’s a great challenge down in Columbus waiting for us, but there’s also great opportunity.”
Coming away with a better result than they did a year ago means a much better defensive performance will be necessary. It’s been something that would have been hard to forecast for much of the season as the Spartans’ defense has had plenty of problems in the back end as injuries have hit hard.
But there were signs on Saturday that unit is starting to come to life. Michigan State forced five turnovers, had a pair of fourth-down stops and returned an interception for a touchdown in the win over Maryland.
For the first time all season, there was some stability in the defensive backfield as junior cornerback Darian Hicks returned from a concussion that kept him out three games, allowing junior Demetrious Cox to return to safety. Combined with a solid performance from fifth-year senior cornerback Arjen Colquhoun and sophomore safety Montae Nicholson, who each had an interception, the secondary helped the defense turn in what Dantonio believed was their best performance this year.
“I thought (Hicks) played well yesterday,” Dantonio said. “He had a full week of practice and I thought he played well and I thought he played confidently. So that’s very important that you play confidently out there and he did a nice job yesterday, as did Arjen Colquhoun. We’ll need to look for winning performances this next week here.”
Not only does the return of Hicks give the secondary more options, it is a chance for the native of Solon, Ohio, to seek a bit of redemption. Hicks was beaten regularly last season by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett he’ll undoubtedly have his share of motivation.
It’s something Dantonio expects across the board.
“I think all our players will be motivated,” he said. “Everybody knows what went down last year in terms of how we didn’t play very well defensively. There’s no question we’ve gotta play better defensively. That’s collectively and I think our players understanding — I just think they understand this football game in terms of we’ve got guys from Ohio going down to play. That will be exciting for them.”
In addition to the improved defensive play, Dantonio singled out his struggling special teams unit. The kicking game was solid against Maryland and the coverage units took a huge leap after a poor game in the loss to Nebraska.
“(Kevin) Cronin kicked the ball in the end zone and had great kicks, great placement,” Dantonio said. “I thought Jake Hartbarger was outstanding, our snaps were very good, protection good. And I think Mike Geiger is back and kicking very well. He’s got pop on the ball, is confident. So we feel good about those situations.”
Good enough to believe they can win a game many think they can’t, a conclusion many have come to after Michigan State has failed to be dominant this season.
But the Spartans are in just the position their coach wants them to be.
“I think there’s a lot on the line, certainly,” Dantonio said. “I think that’s the nature of college football when you get to the last two weeks of the season. After 10 weeks, are we perfect? No. We lost a week ago. We are 9-1 right now, so we’ve got control at least of ourselves and we can control a situation. We control our destiny a little bit.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV/radio: ABC/WJR 760
Line: Ohio State by 13
Records: Michigan State 9-1, 5-1 Big Ten; Ohio State 10-0, 6-0
Series: Ohio State leads 29-14 (Ohio State, 49-37, Nov. 8, 2014
Outlook: The Spartans are the only Big Ten team to have beaten the Buckeyes since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, that game coming in the 2013 conference championship game. The winner of this one will be in the driver’s seat to get back to the title game and play for a spot in the playoffs.