East Lansing — In the wake of Michigan State's loss at Nebraska a couple of weeks ago, linebacker Darien Harris suggested maybe it was a good thing for the Spartans.
In fact, he even said the one-point defeat at the hands of the Cornhuskers was "great."
"Call it a great loss if you want to," Harris said. "It allows us to realize we can't pull things out at the end every time. We need to play extremely hard and extremely well for 60 minutes because things aren't always gonna fall our way. That's how sports are. That's how football is."
What couldn't have been predicted at the time was that Harris was about to be proven right.
Michigan State responded with a 24-7 victory over Maryland, a game the defense played as well as it had the entire season. But when the Spartans followed that with a dominating defensive performance in their 17-14 win over Ohio State, it was clear the Nebraska loss had been just the sort of thing the Spartans needed.
The defense used it as a chance to revive itself and help No. 6 Michigan State come within a win of reaching its third Big Ten championship game.
And holding Ohio State to 132 total yards — the fewest for an Urban Meyer coached team — was the evidence needed to show the Nebraska loss was the spark the Spartans needed on defense.
"Starting in the back end and the fact we have some consistency now with who is on the field and they have a little confidence," co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said, "both with the coaching staff in that secondary — we always did have confidence we just needed to find the right pieces — but more importantly them in themselves.
"The last two weeks our defensive line has been dominant. Not just living on potential but actually going out and being dominant and playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And then the leadership of our linebackers, it shows it's a team effort."
The secondary has overcome injuries and inconsistent play over the last couple of weeks. Junior Darian Hicks has returned from a concussion to solidify one corner spot across from fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun. It has allowed junior Demetrious Cox to move back to safety, where he has teamed with sophomore Montae Nicholson to strengthen the secondary.
Most of that was absent in the first nine games of the season as the Spartans often found themselves in close games they didn't expect to be that close.
It's what Harris was talking about when he said Michigan State couldn't wait until late in the game to start playing well. That came back to bit the Spartans when they relinquished a 12-point lead in the last four minutes at Nebraska.
Coach Mark Dantonio isn't sure his team had to have the loss, but he has seen a difference over the last two games.
"I hope we don't need that, but I think any time you don't succeed at something it sort of wakes you up a little bit," Dantonio said. "I think we had been playing pretty close to the fire throughout the season, obviously. There were some close games and we let some people get back into games and things of that nature.
"I think there was another sense of urgency. I don't know. I think we've just played better. We are playing more confidently. I think that's a big part of it. We've got some players back. At certain positions, we're healthier. I think that makes a difference. We've sorta settled on some things in the back end a little bit more. So I think all those things have something to do with it. There's always going to be a sense of renewed respect for who we are and what we have to get done when you don't succeed, especially at Nebraska."
Keeping that sense of urgency will be vital this week against Penn State. Michigan State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) is a nine-point favorite on Senior Day and will have to avoid looking ahead to the conference title game.
But considering the path this season has taken, it's not likely the Spartans will allow the performance of the last two weeks go to waste.
"They do understand that we're in a situation right now where we have to beat Penn State," Tressel said. "If we don't beat Penn State, either Michigan or Ohio State are going to that championship. There is no side door for us, we have to win this one.
"And I think that helps them focus. It needs to help them focus, because if it doesn't work out then all that is irrelevant."
The final stretch
Remaining schedules for teams at the top of the College Football Playoff hunt:
Clemson (11-0): at South Carolina, North Carolina (ACC title game)
Alabama (10-1): at Auburn, SEC title game (with a victory over Auburn)
Notre Dame (10-1): at Stanford
Iowa (11-0): at Nebraska, Big Ten title game
Michigan State (10-1): Penn State, Big Ten title game (with a victory over Penn State)
Oklahoma (10-1): at Oklahoma State
Baylor (9-1): at TCU, Texas
Florida (10-1): Florida State, SEC title game
Oklahoma State (10-1): Oklahoma
Stanford (9-2): Notre Dame, Pac-12 title game