Columbus, Ohio — You can't ever count them out, not for long, not for good. Without their starting quarterback, seemingly without a chance, the Spartans did what they do, which is to pound away at all opponents, real and perceived.
This was brutish and brilliant, and it might have been the finest moment of Mark Dantonio's career. Michigan State is back in the middle of everything, not that it ever strays far away. With a staggering 17-14 victory over the Buckeyes, the Spartans took it all back — conference title chances, playoff chances, Urban Meyer's cloak of invincibility.
There was nothing remotely fluky about this. If not for a couple of turnovers in the swirling rain, Michigan State would have dominated thoroughly. Instead, it needed a 41-yard field goal by Michael Geiger as time expired to shock the soaked crowd of 108,975.
How momentous was this? With one punishing performance, the Spartans swatted aside the reigning champs and regained control. As a side benefit, Michigan State (10-1) also dulled the buildup to the Michigan-Ohio State game, which will still be big, but not the biggest. If Michigan State beats Penn State in East Lansing next Saturday, it's going to the Big Ten championship game to face Iowa. If the Spartans lose, the Wolverines-Buckeyes winner gets the spot.
Who knows what condition the Buckeyes will be in for the first Meyer-Jim Harbaugh clash, but it's not the Spartans' concern. They beat both on the road — taking their first lead each time on the final play — and if they win out, they have a great chance to land in the four-team playoff. You know, the spot that supposedly was gone after they lost to Nebraska.
The Spartans have said they enjoy making doubters look foolish, and nothing looks sillier, in retrospect, than their two-touchdown underdog status Saturday. When Connor Cook warmed up but couldn't zing the ball because of his sore right shoulder, the odds looked even more insurmountable.
But the secret to the Spartans' success is they aren't built around one quarterback, or one flashy player. They're built for games like this, in conditions like this. They were superior on the offensive and defensive lines, and pretty much everywhere else. It was incredible, really. They used a two-quarterback system, Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry, and basically said they were going to run the ball, run it some more, and dare the Buckeyes to stop it.
Among the newly minted fools, you can count Meyer, who lost his first regular-season Big Ten game, now 30-1. His game plan was horribly predictable, but even worse, it was arrogant, as if the Buckeyes didn't need to do much to win. J.T. Barrett completed only nine passes for 46 yards and Ohio State finished with five — five! — first downs. Afterward, star running back Ezekiel Elliott sharply criticized the play-calling, and then for good measure, declared he'd be going pro after the season.
Wow. The Spartans don't just snap streaks, they snap opponents' wills.
"Huge win for our program," Dantonio said. "We sat around all day and listened to how we were underdogs, and that motivates people. And I think this was the first game all season where we were in the role of hunting the other team. We felt we had to win up front, and I think we did that on offense and defense."
Complacency killed Buckeyes
It sure doesn't look like Penn State — beaten by Michigan, 28-16, Saturday — will be able to slug it out with Michigan State. The national perception will persist that this was the Big Ten at its ugliest, and Ohio State was fraudulent. That's not being fair to the Spartans, but I have a feeling they're used to it. After Saturday's game, the focus wasn't solely on Michigan State's gutsy effort, but on the rants of Elliott, who sounded like someone who couldn't believe what happened.
"We should have run more power," Elliott said. "We stopped calling plays that worked. I'm disappointed by the lack of effort from the coaches. The coaching staff didn't put us in position to win. That's a team (Michigan State) we should beat."
Maybe you'd think the same way if you played in Ohio State's 49-37 pasting of Michigan State last year. I think that stuck with the Buckeyes and contributed to their complacency. You know it stuck with the Spartans, who also were surprised by the Buckeyes' rudimentary no-pass policy.
It was as if the Buckeyes and Spartans were playing the exact same game because of the wind and wetness — Michigan State also threw only 16 passes — but the Spartans were better prepared for it. They rotated bruising backs Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott, and ran O'Connor for clutch first downs.
"We've been waiting for this time, for everybody to get a little healthier (on the offensive line) and jell," center Jack Allen said. "I still think we make a lot of people look foolish. You look on TV, and I think we were supposed to get blown out today…. When we came out at halftime, all our team was jumping around in the rain, and a lot of (the Buckeyes) were huddling around the heaters. I think we came out ready to play."
Ohio Spartans show 'em
The difference was striking, with Ohio State's only touchdowns coming after a fumble and muffed punt. Barrett kept taking snaps and running into Spartans like Shilique Calhoun, as Ohio State finished with only 132 total yards. The Spartans are so confident in who they are and what they do, it didn't faze O'Connor when he learned about 10:30 the night before he'd probably be starting.
"Our offensive line dominated the whole game," said O'Connor, who was 7-for-12 for 89 yards. "We had the mindset they could pack the box with nine guys, but our seven guys up front were pushing guys around. I just managed the game, basically doing anything I could without doing too much."
In many ways, the Spartans redeemed themselves — for last year's loss to Ohio State, for the stumble at Nebraska, for the perception that without Cook, they were cooked. You wonder where the inspiration comes from, and then you look around at the victorious Spartans and you get it.
O'Connor is from Lima, Ohio, but the Buckeyes were only interested in him as a punter. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who scored on 12-yard pass, is from Lucasville, Ohio, and wasn't recruited by the Buckeyes. Geiger, who missed a 43-yard field goal earlier in the game, is from Toledo, and wasn't recruited by the Buckeyes.
"It was the most important kick of my life," Geiger said. "When I was kicking the ball over the swing set in my backyard, every time I'd kick it I'd say, 'This one's to beat Ohio State. This one's to beat Ohio State.' It's personal."
The Spartans take a lot of things personally, and then do something about it. They do it as well as anyone, something Meyer, the Buckeyes and many others are still learning.