East Lansing — At one point in the fourth quarter last season, as Michigan State was watching its Big Ten and national title hopes vanish in a loss to Ohio State on a cold, November night at Spartan Stadium, a smile spread across Connor Cook’s face.
It wasn’t because the Spartans’ quarterback was happy. He’d just misfired on a third-down pass, but the game was decided at that point. Ohio State led by 12 points and the clock was ticking away.
Happiness had disappeared for Cook and all of his teammates at that moment. Frustration. Despair. Anger. Disappointment. Shock. The only thing left for Cook to do was smile, hiding the disbelief that the Spartans were watching their season fall apart.
The 49-37 Ohio State victory dashed Michigan State’s title aspirations, and when the incredulous smile subsided, Cook was left with one overriding feeling: sickness.
“Losing to Ohio State last year I think was a little bit more sickening than losing to Oregon last year,” Cook said, referencing a loss in the second week of the 2014 season. “It shuttered our hopes of going to play for the Big Ten Title game.”
A little more than a year later, as No. 9 Michigan State prepares to face No. 2 Ohio State at 3:30 p.m. today at Ohio Stadium, the Spartans still have that game on their minds and the feeling in the pit of their stomachs hasn’t completely left. It’s why Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun returned for their senior seasons. They wanted to chase a national championship, but there was redemption to be had as well.
They got some by beating Oregon in the second week of this season; now there is one more team to check off that list.
The winner lands in the driver’s seat to win the East Division and reach the Big Ten Championship game. Each will have tough games to close the regular season next week — Michigan State vs. Penn State and Ohio State at Michigan — but a victory today puts one team in solid position to play in Indianapolis on Dec. 5 and helps build what would be an impressive resume for the College Football Playoffs.
“We can avenge that loss from last year by taking care of business this weekend and being able to put ourselves in a situation to go on and play for that conference title,” Cook said. “This game this weekend is huge, this game is huge.”
It’s not a case of revenge for the Spartans. Ohio State is a great team and used last year’s victory as a springboard to the national championship. Redemption is a better description. Michigan State feels it gave something up in that loss a season ago and is looking to get it back.
It’s the same type of approach the Buckeyes used last year. In 2013, it was Ohio State that came into the Big Ten Championship game expecting to roll over Michigan State on the way to the BCS Championship Game. But the Spartans stunned the Buckeyes, derailing their title hopes with a 34-24 victory that sent MSU to the Rose Bowl.
That result was absolutely on the minds of the Buckeyes when they came to Spartan Stadium last November.
“There were a lot of players in this program that might not say it but wanted a little revenge from the Big Ten Championship,” Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said this week. “So there was added incentive.”
Michigan State finds itself in the same position. Ohio State lost a game early last season it probably shouldn’t have, and MSU did the same a couple of weeks ago at Nebraska.
Redemption aside, that Nebraska loss might be as big a motivation as any for the Spartans.
“Shilique said that right after the game — he was actually tearing up a little bit — but he said, ‘Our team needed this,’ ” said co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel. “That’s mature for a kid to be able to say that right after a loss. But yeah, it turns up your intensity in practice, it turns up your intensity in film study. You don’t know it, I guess, until it happens. But you can’t just turn on the switch on Saturday night.”
So there’s redemption dating to last season. There’s frustration over a recent loss. But most importantly for Michigan State, there’s the realization there is still a path to the conference title and a spot in the playoffs. And that’s exactly why Cook and Calhoun are here.
“I knew this was the place that I wanted to be,” Calhoun said. “I wanted another opportunity to play against big-time teams and really showcase my talents and show what our team has, because I know our makeup, and I know how great a players we have here, and I know how far we can go.”
Not many believe the Spartans can go where the Buckeyes did last year. But counting out a team that’s lost only four times over the last three seasons isn’t a safe bet.
Especially when it’s this Michigan State team.
“We like being in the situation we’re in,” Cook said. “We like being the underdog, because you know, majority of time, we come out on top. So we’re going to embrace it, and we will be ready to go, that’s for sure.”