East Lansing — They weren’t undefeated. But they were undeterred.
And by the end Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans were undeniable, validating last week’s season-defining win in Columbus with a title-clinching romp.
The final was 55-16 over Penn State at Spartan Stadium, and a Senior Day farewell ended fittingly with center Jack Allen stiff-arming his way to a touchdown for the final score, mobbed by his teammates afterward as a crowd of 74,705 celebrated the moment.
“To win the way we did,” quarterback Connor Cook said, “it was just a lot of fun.”
And with a trip to Indianapolis next, the fun might just be getting started.
The Big Ten championship game — and a showdown with undefeated Iowa — is next. But beyond that, anything’s possible now for Mark Dantonio and his battle-tested team, with a playoff spot looming for Saturday’s winner and a national championship suddenly within reach.
“I think our team is headed in the right direction,” said cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, the fifth-year senior who set the tone Saturday with an interception on Penn State’s opening drive. “I don’t think anything can hold us back.”
And who would’ve guessed that a few weeks ago? The Spartans’ championship hopes took a serious hit with that Nov. 7 loss at Nebraska.
But it was in that visitors’ locker room that a decision was made, and maybe a season was saved. Mike Tressel, one of Michigan State’s defensive coordinators, said he approached senior Shilique Calhoun, a team captain, and asked him if he was OK that night.
“He was kind of teary-eyed,” Tressel recalled Saturday, “but he said, ‘This is the best thing that could’ve happened to our team.’ ”
Just what the doctor ordered
The fans and the media certainly disagreed at the time, and the conference standings appeared to as well. But to hear Calhoun talk, the humbling loss refocused a team — and particularly a defense — that had lost its edge, in addition to some key starters to injuries.
“And I felt that we definitely needed that,” Calhoun said.
It’s hard to argue with the results since, first against Maryland and then a week ago in the rain and wind at Ohio State, where the Spartans dominated the heavily-favored Buckeyes, limiting them to 132 total yards and a measly five first downs.
Saturday, Penn State had piled up twice that much by halftime. But Michigan State’s defense had forced a pair of turnovers — they would finish with four — and scored a touchdown on Demetrious Cox’s 77-yard fumble return.
And by the time senior wideout Aaron Burbridge had spun his way to a ridiculous 29-yard touchdown reception — “spectacular” is how Dantonio described it — the Spartans were well on their way.
“When we’re in a situation like this, where it’s win or go home, we’re going to come out and we’re going to play fast and we’re not going to be denied,” said Cook, the senior quarterback who didn’t miss a beat in his return. “We’re not gonna let someone come in here and take away what we want.”
Not now, anyway. Not after all they’ve been through.
“We knew if we were gonna win it,” Dantonio said, “it wasn’t gonna be given to us.”
Peaking for the postseason
Cook, who’d watched the Spartans defense shoulder the load in the win at Ohio State, didn’t return to practice as a full participant until Thursday. But after testing his right arm then, and again in pregame warm-ups Saturday, he told Dantonio shortly before kickoff, “Let’s go. I’m ready to go.”
So there he was back under center, two weeks after suffering an injury that threatened to derail Michigan State’s season, facing one of the more potent pass-rushing defenses in the country.
And yet there he was seated at the postgame press conference Saturday, asked if he’d even taken a hit behind an offensive line that’s finally healthy and playing to its potential.
“Nope,” Cook said, shaking his head. “They didn’t touch me once.”
He finished the afternoon 19-of-26 for 248 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, passing Kirk Cousins along the way as Michigan State’s all-time leader in total offense.
And yes, he admits, that’s a totally different feeling than the one he’d had not that long ago. After that victory slipped away in Lincoln, and then after his season started to slip away with that injured shoulder.
“It was the worst feeling in the entire world,” Cook said Saturday. “So we never want to feel like that ever again. That feeling when you lose … it puts you in a place you don’t really want to be in.”
Right here, though? This is exactly where they wanted to be. Where they expected to be, really. And now that they are, “we’re playing our best football down the stretch,” Dantonio said.
“And when you look and compare us with last year’s Big Ten champion,” he added, “that’s what they were able to do.”
He didn’t bother expanding on that, but the message was clear: A year ago, Ohio State was pretty undeniable in the end, too.