Niyo: MSU left to salvage deeper purpose to this season

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — So now it's Ohio State's cross to bear.

And Michigan State's turn to wonder what might've been, their playoff hopes going up in smoke Saturday night as their defense got torched by an Ohio State team burning for revenge.

Urban Meyer called it a victory "for the ages," and Ohio State's coach insisted this 49-37 runaway win "meant everything to this team." But the same certainly could be said for the Spartans, who now are left with little incentive in conference play, other than a demand from their coach, Mark Dantonio, to "play it out."

Being labeled the best in the Big Ten is a backhanded compliment these days. And for the Buckeyes, now 8-1 and all but assured a berth in the conference title game next month, they will find it to be a millstone from here. A nonfactor in the national playoff picture after that ugly loss to Virginia Tech in early September, they might be in the mix now, as a handful of teams ahead of them in the rankings lost this weekend.

Yet that only adds to Michigan State's misery today. Their playoff path had cleared a bit more even before they'd kicked off Saturday night, with Auburn fumbling away its fate against Texas A&M. Kansas State also was effectively eliminated with a loss to TCU, while Arizona State knocked off Notre Dame. Alabama nearly joined Saturday's top-10 casualties, needing overtime to survive.

And while Dantonio had talked in recent weeks about his players avoiding all the playoff talk, when that was mentioned late Saturday night — just after the clock struck midnight, actually — he smiled and said, "This ought to do it."

Indeed, it does, as the defending Big Ten champs now are forced to recalibrate their goals.

Refocus, reinforce

"We had a great season last year," Dantonio said of that 13-2 squad that won the Rose Bowl, "and we're going to have a good season this year."

"We understand the ramifications of everything," he added. "It's a disappointment. We had big hopes. … But at the end of the day, we don't get what we wanted. Sometimes that's the way life is."

Particularly in the Big Ten, where the general football ineptitude this fall doesn't just devalue the league's best teams. (Michigan State was the first ranked opponent Ohio State has faced all season.) It also leaves them somewhat unprepared, idling through an assortment of inferior teams before running headlong into reality.

In the Spartans' case, that crash came Saturday against a team still smarting from last year's Big Ten championship game, when Dantonio & Co. dashed the Buckeyes' BCS title hopes.

Meyer openly admitted as much this week, talking about the "dream" that was "ripped away" last December. Ohio State has yet to lose a conference game in the regular season under Meyer — Saturday's win makes it 21 in a row, a new Big Ten record — but they have little to show for it.

They still don't, I suppose. But, as Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "They came in for revenge and they got it."

They took it, really, dismantling Narduzzi's vaunted defense with big play after big play, finishing with a whopping 568 yards of total offense, more than doubling MSU's season-average allowed.

Still, it was an undeniably entertaining first half Saturday. A shootout. A showcase, even, for a league desperately in need of one. It just unraveled quickly for the Spartans, is all.

A holding penalty negated a Jeremy Langford touchdown run that would've put Michigan State up, 28-14, with 3:40 left. Then Michael Geiger missed a 39-yard field goal, continuing his season-long struggles. And Ohio State hit a 79-yard pass play on the first play of the ensuing drive, as Michael Thomas ran away from Darian Hicks.

"All of a sudden, momentum just flipped," said Dantonio, whose team gave up another deep ball on a busted coverage and went into halftime with a seven-point deficit instead of a 14-point lead.

Ohio State had its share of costly gaffes, though, including a pair of turnovers on special teams in the first half.

"And let's face it," Dantonio admitted, "the bottom line was we didn't stop em, we couldn't stop 'em."

Ohio State scored touchdowns on four of its six first-half possessions. The only times they came up empty were because of a missed field goal and a drive-killing personal-foul penalty.

Spiral-bound genius

And if the Buckeyes' offensive game plan wasn't flawless Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett certainly was, passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 86 yards and two more scores.

Barrett, who's only playing because starter Braxton Miller was hurt before the season, was better than advertised. Better than the MSU coaches had anticipated, obviously. And he was so deadly accurate on the deep balls he threw that Narduzzi asked sarcastically in his postgame press conference, "Did he have an incomplete pass today? I don't know if he threw one."

He threw 10, actually, but it didn't matter. Because he did more than enough damage — averaging 18.8 yards per completion — against an MSU secondary that's nowhere near as adept at living dangerously as last year's championship unit.

"That kind of defense forces you to go over the top," Meyer said. "We felt like we had some matchups somewhere that, if we found it right, we'd take that shot."

They felt they had some last December as well, and they probably did. "But when we threw down the field, we just missed," Meyer said of that 34-24 loss in Indianapolis.

Saturday night, they didn't miss.

And now it's the Spartans who'll find something missing.

"A big opportunity," receiver Tony Lippett said.