A few weeks ago, when Michigan State headed to Penn State and everyone assumed the Spartans would lose, coach Mark Dantonio handed his players a poker chip.
He wanted it to signify that his team was all in and they were “putting their chips on the table.” It was a coaching ploy that worked as Michigan State won that day and rekindled some momentum a week after losing at home to Northwestern.
Several weeks later, Dantonio went to his bag of tricks once again as Michigan State headed to Maryland, handing each of his players a Payday candy bar. The Spartans were looking to build off a victory the week before against Purdue — another game not many were picking Michigan State to win — and doing so against Maryland would keep the Spartans at least in the picture in the battle for the Big Ten East.
While those title chances took a hit with Michigan’s win over Penn State, it didn’t change Michigan State’s approach, and it didn’t mean any less to the Spartans after their 24-3 victory over the Terrapins.
“I’ve been saying it all week long, it’s a big payday game,” Dantonio said on Saturday. “Everybody got Payday candy bars and maybe they’ll get to eat them now. In an opportunity to get bowl eligible, which is the 11th time in 12 years, and any way you cut it, as you go through November you continue to drive forward and the more games you win the better bowl you go to or the more you are into whatever situation is afforced to you.
“(We’re) 4-2 right now in the conference, which is big, and we have a big game next week and that’ll be another great challenge.”
With the payday taken care of at Maryland, the attention now turns to No. 8 Ohio State, which visits Spartans Stadium for a noon kickoff on Saturday. While the 24th-ranked Spartans (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) can knock the Buckeyes out of contention in the East with a win — while helping out rival Michigan — it would also keep whatever faint title hopes Michigan State has alive.
More importantly, it would be another quality win for a relatively young team that would improve its bowl standing with only two more regular-season games to play.
“We still have an opportunity to win four more games,” Dantonio said Sunday night during his weekly teleconference. “Certainly, this is a big game coming up. November, as I said — for every college football team in America — takes on a little bit of a twist relative to what you’re able to accomplish. With every win those accomplishments become greater.
“We’ll focus on the present and try to get it done this week. But I do think, not just for this football team, but for other teams, big things are possible in November.”
In order for Michigan State to accomplish big things, it will need to keep playing defense the way it has much of the season, including at Maryland where it allowed the Terrapins to gain just 100 total yards. It was a performance Dantonio called “dominant” as the Spartans had six three-and-outs and had five sacks while limiting Maryland to 26 rushing yards.
They could also use the running game they had against the Terrapins. Going for 269 yards, led by Connor Heyward’s 157, might not be reasonable against Ohio State, but moving in that direction would benefit an offense that has had its struggles this season.
“I thought we played better (on the offensive line),” Dantonio said. “I thought we got movement on the offensive line and played pretty well. Our backs — again, we ran the ball a lot — and I think our backs missed a couple of cuts, but they ran hard in there as well and were productive.”
They were productive without senior LJ Scott, who Dantonio said was hurt against Purdue and is in week-to-week at this point. Scott has now missed five games this season because of injury.
“He’s been able to practice at times and other times he can’t,” Dantonio said. “So, it’s one of those type of injuries. We’ll play it by ear.”
There were other good signs besides the running game. Sophomore wide receiver Cody White was back after missing four games with a broken hand and sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott played in his first game this season after injury his knee in preseason camp.
Scott played in every defensive snap but one, Dantonio said, meaning he played 52 snaps. With the six three-and-outs, however, it was the perfect pace for the freshman All-American to get his feet wet.
“He wasn’t playing consecutive long series,” Dantonio said, “which was the best scenario for him because he’s got one game in terms of playing a full game from a conditioning standpoint, so it benefited him.”
It all has Michigan State thinking big with three games to go, about where it might end up when the season comes to a close and how it might make up for last year’s blowout loss at Ohio State.
“Not every team in the country is bowl eligible, so just getting that off our shoulders feels pretty good,” Scott said. “Then to take that loss last year (to Ohio State), we’ll remember that and try and give it our all.”
Ohio State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Ohio State 8-1, 5-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-3, 4-2
Line: Ohio State by 5.5