Niyo: Spartans loss leaves two teams with empty feeling

John Niyo
The Detroit News
At the end of his last home game as a Spartan, Josiah Price takes a moment with his head against the goalpost while the Buckeyes players celebrate.

East Lansing — Before “The Game” there is this game.

And this game, as we’ve all noticed in recent years, doesn’t always go the way you’d expect.

Yet at the end of a season that certainly hasn’t gone the way Michigan State expected, this game did, right up until the bitter end, as No. 2 Ohio State escaped with a 17-16 victory — and its national championship hopes still intact — in a game that left both teams feeling strangely unfulfilled.

“Tough day at the office right there,” sighed Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, whose 10-1 team survived a major scare thanks in part to the Spartans’ failed 2-point conversion attempt with 4:41 to play.

That’s how it felt for his Michigan State counterpart, too, as Mark Dantonio talked confidently all week about his team’s ability to measure up with the Big Ten’s best program. A team the Spartans had beaten twice in their four previous meetings since Meyer took the helm — for reference, he’s now 60-5 overall in five seasons at Ohio State — including last season’s stunning last-second win in Columbus.

“The way I saw this football game was, we’ve been close the past few years,” Dantonio said, “so we would compete with these guys and have an opportunity to win at the end.”

And as the fourth quarter ground down, with neither team able to muster any offense through the air on a blustery-cold day at Spartan Stadium, Dantonio said, “My belief in what would happen was coming true.”

But believing isn’t always seeing with this Michigan State team, unlike more recent vintages. And even after LJ Scott had plowed into the end zone from 1 yard out, capping a career-best day (237 total yards, 160 rushing) against his home-state Buckeyes, there was something missing.

All week, Dantonio had said if the game was close late, he’d go for the win. So that’s exactly what he did. But Tyler O’Connor, the Spartans’ fifth-year senior quarterback, couldn’t convert, and his late throw to tight end Jamal Lyles was intercepted in the end zone.

“The play that was called didn’t work,” said Dave Warner, Michigan State’s offensive coordinator. “So sitting right here, right now, I would’ve called something different.”

‘Game’ on

But right here, right now, there’s no turning back for the Spartans and their snake-bitten seniors, whose nightmarish season officially will end next weekend at Penn State. Saturday’s loss guaranteed there’ll be no bowl game for the first time in Dantonio’s 10-year tenure.

“That’s kind of the way this season has gone,” said senior tight end Josiah Price, who was O’Connor’s first option on that ill-fated 2-point try. “It’s so frustrating. They’re ranked No. 2 in the country, and we lose by one point because we go for a two-point conversion to win.

‘Hurts a lot’: MSU misfires on 2-point try, OSU escapes

“It’s so tough. We’re right there. We play good enough to win, and we just don’t capitalize on enough opportunities. And somehow we don’t find a way to win in the end.”

The Buckeyes did, somehow. But no sooner had they done that than they turned their attention to next week’s showdown with Michigan in Columbus.

“It’s officially rivalry week,” Meyer said. “Let’s go.”

Win is a win

The Buckeyes go into Saturday’s game against the Wolverines knowing they don’t control their own destiny in the Big Ten title race. Michigan State still does, in some respects, because it’ll take a win by the Spartans at Penn State to send Ohio State to the conference championship game in Indianapolis.

Still, a win over Michigan would all but clinch a playoff spot for the Buckeyes, and they know it. They just aren’t saying it.

“Well, you won’t hear it from us,” Meyer said. “But (the players) don’t live in a cocoon, either. So they hear it from the media and all that and that’s part of it. But I’m glad we’re here.”

And happy to be heading home with a win, however it looked. Unlike last season, the Buckeyes had a better plan for the inclement weather, and whether that’s the reason they won or not, it’s hard to say.

But regardless, Meyer looked like a coach who knew he’d gotten away with one Saturday. J.T. Barrett was just 10-of-22 for 86 yards in the windy conditions and was forced to carry the ball 24 times. And while redshirt freshman Mike Weber did his part — 14 carries for 118 yards and the winning score — the Buckeyes gave up a few too many big plays for Meyer’s liking.

“That’s not us, and that can’t be us,” he said. “We’ll lose next week if we play like that.”

This week, though, it was enough. And when it comes to this game, that’s all that really matters.