East Lansing — Connor Cook was talking plenty about his shoulder Tuesday, a day after Ohio State’s players and coaches were talking about winning.
Cook had no news on his ailing right shoulder, only saying it feels fine. He was, instead, talking about that chip that never seems to leave for the Spartans. And in Columbus, the Buckeyes were facing their own helping of doubt — not from inside the program, but out.
“Same story, different week,” Cook said. “No one really gives us the kind of respect that we deserve, that we think we need. Just another reason why we’ve said it thousands and thousands of times, it seems like, the chip on your shoulder. Provides more motivation to us. My shoulder is good, I’m going to be ready to go, so there is no issue with that.”
The same sort of disbelief was in the tone of some of the Buckeyes on Monday. Coach Urban Meyer talked about winning by 25 points over Illinois, the 23rd consecutive victory for Ohio State and the 30th in Big Ten, and still hearing how his team needs to get rolling.
The Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) began the season at No. 1 in the nation, but have fallen to No. 2 and sit at No. 3 in the playoff rankings. All despite not losing.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best, but we win,” Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said. “People were talking about Utah, for example. People had them No. 1 in the country and they were playing great, but they lost.
“They’ve lost games and we haven’t. You win by one or you win by 100, you still win. You just have to be the best team in the stadium that game, you don’t have to be the best team every day, and we haven’t been the best team in the country every week.
“We haven’t played our best, but we win.”
MSU QB Connor Cook hails from state of Ohio.
So when No. 2 Ohio State hosts No. 9 Michigan State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, there will be two teams out to prove they belong in the top 10 and deserve a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“We’ve got things at least in place in terms to control our own destiny a little bit,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s where we needed to be coming into this football game a long time ago. Not perfect, 9-1, but at least we are in control of our opportunities.”
Despite losing at Nebraska, Michigan State (9-1, 5-1) still gets to the conference championship game with two wins. And if the Spartans come away with a victory in Indianapolis on Dec. 5, they’ll have a solid resume to make the playoff field.
But few believe that will happen for a team that opened as a 13-point underdog. After beating Oregon in Week 2, perception has changed around Michigan State. Oregon’s struggles go into that, but the fact Michigan State hasn’t overwhelmed opponents has, as well. Throw in the way it beat Michigan on a last-second play — at least one AP voter said it should be viewed as a loss — and there is plenty of doubt.
All of it, ultimately, is fine with the Spartans.
“We’re used to it around here,” center Jack Allen said. “Nothing new. ... Every big game that we’re in we’re always expected to lose, and feel like we surprise a lot of people and make a lot of people look foolish. Being the underdog is always fun, and usually when I watch sports or watch any sport-related activity, I always root for the underdog.”
None of that has Ohio State believing it will roll through the next two weeks — it faces Michigan in the regular-season finale.
Meyer, while praising his defense and the running of Ezekiel Elliott, is concerned about his team’s pass protection. He has been impressed, however, with how the Buckeyes keep rolling, despite what some critics say.
“Is this going to be good enough, period?” Meyer has asked throughout the season. “And Michigan State, that’s the top of our conference and obviously the next two games we have are big-time games. ... I think what our guys have done because you see it across the country, the consistency and winning, it’s very admirable for the way our guys are.”
It’s been impressive to Dantonio, as well. But he isn’t shying from the challenge.
Teams meet Saturday in Columbus.
“I think we have the talent to play with the top 10 teams in the country,” he said. “I do think our guys get motivated for it, and this is another challenge, but I also think our guys respect who they’re playing against, every single time.
“We’ve got to play our best football game this Saturday if we are going to be successful; I truly believe that. But I do think we’re very capable.”