East Lansing — Two weeks ago, as Michigan State headed home from Nebraska with its first loss of the season, it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
The Spartans were so dialed in to competing for a championship — both Big Ten and national — that the thought they could still end up at that point with a loss was hard to fathom.
How quickly things can change, especially in the world of college football.
Following Saturday’s 17-14 victory over Ohio State, one that saw a much-maligned defense dominate and a struggling kicker run off the field a hero after his winning field goal as time expired, the Spartans have erased any belief their season was over.
Michigan State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) has bounced back all right, and in the process has put themselves in control of the Big Ten East and right smack in the middle of the playoff conversation. The Spartans have moved up to No. 6 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls with new playoff rankings coming Tuesday.
It’s a position even they might not have expected a couple of weeks ago.
“When you lose a football game, any time you lose a football game, you’ve got to regroup,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. “And you know, it’s tough. Especially if you’re sort of on a run a little bit and then you lose and the way it went down we felt like we could control something at least in that outcome, because it was so close.
“But I’m sure every football team that loses feels like that. So it’s important to be able to regroup, we were able to do that.”
There was frustration, of course, following the Nebraska loss. As Dantonio alluded to, the way it went down was with a controversial call on the winning touchdown for the Cornhuskers. But it was also a game in which the Michigan State defense couldn’t stop Nebraska.
It was clear, if the Spartans were to turn things around, they’d have to be better on that side of the ball.
Last week against Maryland was one of their best outings of the season, but a much tougher task awaited with Ohio State, which came into the game the top scoring offense in the Big Ten and the No. 1 rushing unit.
The Spartans responded, giving up 132 yards of total offense and just 86 on the ground while holding Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott to 33 yards rushing after he had gone over the 100-yard mark in 15 straight games.
“We played very, very well,” Dantonio said. “We know we needed to play well up front and tackle on the perimeter. We knew we had a great back we were gonna have to be able to handle, as well as a quarterback (J.T. Barrett) that was dynamic last year against us. We knew we had to play the ball in the deep part of the field at some point. And we did those things.
“I think I credit our players and I credit our defensive staff with a big game plan. And really, (co-defensive coordinator Harlon) Barnett did an outstanding job calling the game. Did not put our players at risk too often but obviously pressured when we needed to, and we got off the field on third down. We started getting back to three-and-outs; I think there were six times there were three-and-outs.”
That same defense has a chance to keep riding the momentum in the regular-season finale against Penn State, a team that ranks last in the Big Ten in total offense and scoring offense.
But the Nittany Lions have been tough defensively and there’s always the quarterback question moving forward. The status of Connor Cook likely won’t be clear until Saturday, and while Michigan State might be able to beat Penn State without him, getting past Iowa in the Big Ten title game would be tougher.
The Spartans won’t spend a ton of time worrying about that, though, as a conference championship and shot at the playoffs is back in focus.
Instead, it will be all about Penn State with only a short break on Thursday to enjoy Thanksgiving.
The Spartans will return Friday morning with one goal in mind.
“As long as we continue to play to our expectations and everything, good things are possible as long as we win up front,” Dantonio said. “We still face a Penn State team that is very good on the defensive front as well. It will be a challenge.
“(This week is) an opportunity to give thanks for what you have, so we want to make sure our players have an opportunity to do that. We’ll reconvene on Friday like we always do, and hopefully win an East championship.”