East Lansing — Through all the aches and pangs and last-second plays, everything is still sitting right there for the Spartans. It's within their grasp — a division title, a Big Ten title, a playoff berth — despite what the odds and the eyes say.
The only difference between now and three months ago, when this Michigan State-Ohio State showdown was preordained, is the enormity of the task. Reach higher? For the Spartans and star quarterback Connor Cook, the question is whether they can reach without grimacing.
Cook's right shoulder is ailing, unless he has recuperative powers beyond a normal human (which is possible). It serves no purpose for Cook or Mark Dantonio to say the quarterback is limited, so everyone is sticking to the 9.5-out-of-10 scale. Cook is talented enough, a once-in-a-generation player, he might be able to gut through anything.
That's good because the Spartans (9-1) will have to gut through everything to pull this off. The Buckeyes (10-0) are defending national champs, winners of 23 straight, 30-1 in Big Ten games under Urban Meyer, with the only loss in the 2013 championship game, 34-24 to the Spartans. Ohio State is a 13-point favorite Saturday, a hefty line based on three factors, near as I can tell.
Michigan State hasn't dominated many opponents, for a variety of reasons, and was stunned by Nebraska.
Ohio State didn't dominate many opponents either, against a weaker schedule, until quarterback J.T. Barrett returned and the defense cranked it up.
Cook banged his shoulder against Maryland last weekend and didn't return after halftime, which casts some doubt on his ability to make those tight throws to his gifted receivers.
The Spartans talk constantly about the chip on their shoulders, a product of being overlooked. This time, a lot of their chips are piled on one tender shoulder.
"You know, same story, different week," Cook said Tuesday. "No one really gives us the kind of respect that we deserve. My shoulder is good, I'm going to be ready to go, so there's no issue with that. … We like being the underdog, because the majority of time, we come out on top."
I diligently kept poking (not literally) for signs of pain, any clues to Cook's true status. I noticed he scratched his head with his left hand — not his injured throwing arm! — and at one point, I detected the slightest hint of a wince. In fairness, he might've just been biting his lip at another shoulder question.
Cook spoke with a feisty edge, as did Dantonio, as you'd expect. And I have no doubt the Spartans will play with their standard ferocity Saturday at Ohio Stadium, a reason they're 19-4 in Big Ten road games since 2010.
Cook is 32-4 as a starter, the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history, and perhaps the most fearless. Not that he needs another defining victory, but this would be the definitive definer, putting the Spartans in position to reach the playoff. And yes, if Michigan State beats Ohio State and Penn State, and then likely Iowa in the championship game, it would land in the four-team playoff, regardless of its current No. 9 ranking.
That makes this one of the biggest games of Dantonio's career, although he's coached in so many, it's hard to narrow them down. It certainly ranks among his most-daunting tasks, and for all the legendary Spartans motivations, this won't be won by chips and sneers. Ohio State is too talented on defense, led by Joey Bosa, and too dynamic on offense, led by Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott, who has topped 100 yards rushing 15 consecutive games.
Michigan State needs Cook to be effective, and Aaron Burbridge, Macgarrett Kings and R.J. Shelton to keep making clutch catches. And it needs its defense, led by Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell, to redeem itself. Cook played well in last year's meeting but it wasn't enough, as the Spartans were sliced up 49-37. There were structural breakdowns, mental mistakes and an otherworldly performance by Barrett. If any of that happens again, Cook and his receivers can't save them.
Dantonio doesn't shy from anything, but he has some confidence-boosting to do with a defense that ranks ninth in the Big Ten.
"I think we have the talent to play with the Top-10 teams in the country, I believe that," Dantonio said. "I think we have yet to play our best game, where we're hitting on all cylinders. We've got to play our best football game this Saturday if we're going to be successful. But I do think we're very, very capable."
Injuries have muddled Michigan State's secondary and offensive line, although several key players are back. For all Ohio State's offensive mayhem — first in the Big Ten in many categories — its defense has taken over lately. Bosa might be the No. 1 pick in the draft, which could make Lions fans happy but is hardly comforting for the Spartans. He has 25 career sacks, tied with Calhoun for second in the nation among active players.
This is as big a challenge as the Spartans have faced in a while, at least judging by the point spread. It's a challenge made mightier by the status of a star who may or may not be hurting, may or may not be limited, and might be the difference in the game, one way or another. I don't know if Cook's shoulder justifies the long odds, but I do know the Spartans are way past the point of caring.
"Every big game that we're in, we're always expected to lose," center Jack Allen said. "And we surprise a lot of people and make a lot of people look foolish."
It doesn't take much to turn a skeptic into a fool. This time, it'll take everything the Spartans have, and even a bit more.