Wojo: Michigan State learns how tough it is to repeat

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

This was the chance to say it loudly, to legitimately announce their playoff contention. But the Spartans were muted in stunning fashion, their defense mauled by an Ohio State team with red in its eyes.

The Buckeyes get to play the debate game now, and try to fend off another round of attacks on the Big Ten's weakness. They took the role with force, pounding the Spartans, 49-37, Saturday night, piling up 588 yards behind freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. If a Big Ten team gets into the four-team national playoff — and that's certainly no given — it'll be Ohio State, barring some miraculous rise by Nebraska.

Michigan State's title hopes are gone, and a return to the Big Ten championship game is highly unlikely. Everything was sitting right there for the Spartans on a riveting, revealing day, "Separation Saturday" because of all the showdowns. Other contenders fell, from Auburn to Notre Dame to Kansas State, and Michigan State wasn't immune. The Spartans wouldn't have rocketed way up from No. 8 with a victory, but they would have remained deep in the conversation.

The Buckeyes are in the mix now, and as poorly as the conference stacks up, they grabbed the most-cherished credential — a tough road win. As it stands, the top four in the rankings are likely to be Mississippi State, Florida State, Oregon and Alabama. TCU, Baylor and Arizona State probably lead the next tier, with Ohio State creeping up.

Buckeyes were hungrier

This was the first — and only — Big Ten showdown of the season, and the Spartans played as if they'd been waiting for it, while the Buckeyes played as if they'd been hungering for it. A year ago, Michigan State stomped Ohio State's hopes in the Big Ten championship game, and the payback was brutal. It's the power of purpose in college football, and Urban Meyer had burned for a year after losing 34-24. He didn't hide his drive, and in a rarity, the Spartans were outdriven, outmuscled, outhit and outschemed.

Mark Dantonio will find something to rally his team, which is still 7-2 and in the midst of a remarkable run. After losing its first Big Ten game in nearly two years and ending a 13-game regular-season conference winning streak, this will be different. It's improbable the Spartans can climb back into the Big Ten title mix because they'd need the Buckeyes (8-1) to lose twice to bypass them.

Ohio State's final three games are at Minnesota, which won't be easy, then home to Indiana and Michigan, which probably won't be difficult. Michigan State closes at Maryland, home to Rutgers, then at Penn State, and they'll have to dig for motivation.

The important perspective here is, Michigan State fans should realize how special last year's team was, and how special that defense was, rolling all the way to a Rose Bowl victory. It was going to be tough for coordinator Pat Narduzzi to duplicate that dominance, and signs of trouble surfaced early, in the 46-27 loss at Oregon and in odd fourth-quarter stumbles.

Everyone — from fans to media to the selection committee — wanted to see more proof of the Spartans' worthiness. But in a surprising home humbling, Barrett simply couldn't be slowed. It was a statement performance, and the statement is, the Buckeyes are back in charge of the conference. Under Meyer, Ohio State is 21-0 in regular-season conference games.

"It was a great environment against an excellent football team," Meyer said on the field afterward. "When you got two teams that control the line of scrimmage, that's two sledgehammers."

The Spartans almost never get out-sledgehammered, but the Buckeyes rolled up 268 rushing yards and punted only twice. Barrett burned Michigan State's secondary, completing 16 of 26 passes for 300 yards. And Connor Cook was uneven most of the night, sometimes sharp, sometimes off, finishing 25-for-45.

Fortunes rise, fall

National playoff hopes played out all day, rising and falling practically by the minute. Baylor went into Oklahoma and rolled, 48-14. Notre Dame nearly rallied from a 34-3 deficit before getting smoked by Arizona State, 55-31. Alabama pulled out a 20-13 overtime victory at LSU.

Just before Michigan State's game began in the cold night air, fans watched on the scoreboard and cheered as Auburn fumbled twice in the final three minutes and was shocked at home by Texas A&M, 41-38. That was an opening for someone, but for Michigan State, it closed quickly under a pile of mistakes, missed tackles and blown chances.

The drama began in the morning with the ESPN "College GameDay" broadcast in the shadow of Spartan Stadium and continued unabated, the sudden turns, the wild comebacks, the endless arguments. I don't know if this is what college football envisioned when it launched the four-team playoff, but this is what it got — a wacky, weekly caucus on who's good, who's better, who's played whom and who deserves what.

The judging and juggling never stop, and while the discussion can get a bit tiresome, it stirs the passion. The Spartans won't be in the discussion now, and the Big Ten will struggle to make points in the debate. But the Buckeyes made a bunch of points Saturday night, impressive enough to start building their own case.