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Wojo: Spartans muscle their way into playoff contention

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

They left the Buckeyes bickering and the oddsmakers scrambling. The Spartans have turned a good season into a potentially spectacular one, and they’re probably the only ones not surprised by it.

In one smothering swoop, Michigan State pulled off the seemingly impossible — enhancing its chances for the biggest prizes while diminishing its rivals at the same time. The Spartans snapped the Buckeyes’ 23-game winning streak and defrocked Urban Meyer in humiliating fashion, 17-14, without starting quarterback Connor Cook. And just like that, the Spartans are right back in the national title hunt.

They also seized firmer control of the Big Ten race just as the Wolverines were reaching for it. Now, that Michigan-Ohio State clash that was going to spark a revival of The Game? Downgraded, if not dashed. They’ll meet at noon Saturday in Ann Arbor, and the inaugural Jim Harbaugh-Meyer clash is still a significant attention-grabber. But the winner goes to the Big Ten championship game only if Michigan State stumbles at home against Penn State starting at 3:30 p.m.

It would help if Cook’s sore right shoulder is healed enough to let him play, but Michigan State (10-1) has proven it can win any which way. If it advances and beats Iowa (11-0) in the championship game in Indianapolis, a spot in the four-team playoff is virtually assured. Not guaranteed, mind you, but with all the upheaval in college football, the Spartans need only take care of their own business, something they’re very good at.

Plenty still up in air in College Football Playoff race

Realistically, there are six worthy teams right now for four playoff spots — Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Iowa. If five win out, hoo-boy, there’ll be a rollicking debate, especially among one-loss Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Michigan State. More likely, issues will be resolved on the field, which is the point of this whole playoff thingy.

Notre Dame still has to play at Stanford. Oklahoma still has to play at Oklahoma State. And if Michigan State beats Iowa, it will have knocked off four power teams — Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Oregon. Some minimize the 27-23 victory over Michigan because of the punt-muff ending, but you can’t do that unless you also minimize MSU’s controversial 39-38 loss at Nebraska.

That game two weeks ago was decided by an apparent blown non-call on the Cornhuskers’ winning touchdown, and seemed to derail the Spartans’ playoff hopes. At least that was the narrative, comically repeated after just about every loss by any top-10 team this crazy season.

If Michigan State was to slip Saturday against Penn State (7-4), then we’re back to chaos, and back to the Michigan-Ohio State winner. The Buckeyes seem less likely to win in the wake of their disintegration, with Meyer’s conservative play-calling causing star Ezekiel Elliott to lash out afterward. But if they beat the Wolverines, they’d be 11-1 and back in the playoff picture. If Michigan wins, I can’t see an 11-2 team getting much consideration.

One more thing: Michigan State should hope Iowa wins at Nebraska in its regular-season finale, to make a potential win over an unbeaten opponent look more impressive. Not that any of it mattered in the sweet, sweaty glow of the Spartans’ signature victory, in which they held the Buckeyes to an astonishing 132 total yards and five first downs.

Michigan State looked like the pounding team we expected all season, with tough runners slicing through a terrific offensive line. The defensive line was punishing, and partly due to Meyer’s baffling reluctance to call pass plays in the rain, the Spartans controlled the game where they generally do, in the trenches.

That’s how a team weathers the absence of a quarterback, Cook, who had started 36 straight games and was 32-4. That’s how a team prevails with a pair of backups, Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry, who had never started a game.

“We always have a chance to win,” Dantonio said. “If you really look at our football team, when have we ever been blown out? It hasn’t happened in a long time. Our team has learned how to win over the course of time. We’ve lost four times in three years right now, and we’ve got to win one more. We understand how to win, and it doesn’t matter how you win, just that you win.”

The Spartans have won eight consecutive games decided by a touchdown or less, and are 34-4 since 2013. Their play-to-the-finish attitude is illustrated in this factoid: They didn’t lead for a single second during their victories over the Wolverines and Buckeyes, winning both as the clock expired.

There’s nothing mysterious about the Spartans’ physical style, but there’s a not-so-obvious benefit to it. Because they lean on all elements, not just relying on stars or a gimmicky offense that requires intricate timing, they truly are a well-rounded team.

Takeaways from MSU's win: Scott surging at just right time

You saw it on a blustery day in Columbus, as the quarterbacks and running backs kept alternating, and the lines kept mauling. You even saw it afterward, as the quarterbacks – Cook, O’Connor, Terry – sat at a table speaking to the media, while teammates dutifully continued working.

The Michigan State banner hung behind the players kept slipping down, revealing an Ohio State backdrop. As the quarterbacks talked, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and center Jack Allen took care of business. They rehung the banner, and when it fell again, Calhoun peeled off strips of duct tape to make it stay.

“That’s what you call 100 percent team effort,” said O’Connor, who was talking about the game, not the interior decorating. “The defense played lights out, by far their best game. I think they showed the nation what they’re all about. And the offensive line dominated. The chemistry is really rolling with them.”

Rolling right along, as if they’d never stopped. Whatever happens to the Spartans during a long season, they know how to trust each other, and how to time their roll.