After Michigan State lost leading rusher Le’Veon Bell to graduation and the NFL draft, it was only natural that the Spartans' offense would require a little time to adjust. After all, Bell accounted for 1,960 total yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012.
But in Michigan State's sixth game of the season, junior Jeremy Langford finally established himself as a backfield threat, giving the Spartans their first 100-yard rusher of the season.
Since then, Langford has gone over the 100-yard mark in each of Michigan State’s remaining contests, compiling 1,210 total yards on the year with 17 touchdowns. He's helped Sparty outscore its opponents 212-74 en route to an 11-1 record and a Big Ten championship appearance against No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday.
For it to be successful this season, Michigan State needed backfield production and quarterback consistency. Connor Cook battled Andrew Maxwell for the starting job early in the year, but he eventually established himself as the team's top option under center.
While Cook won't be in line for any postseason awards, he has done what the Spartans have asked of him: Take care of the game, make throws and limit mistakes. He has even added in a couple of stat-stuffing performances, including a 15-of-16, 208-yard, three-touchdown day in a 42-3 stomping of Illinois on Oct. 26. Cook had a 293-yard, two-score effort in a 30-6 rout of Northwestern on Nov. 23.
This year’s Michigan State team harkens back to Big Ten teams of old. The Spartans want to run the ball. They want to force three-and-outs. And they want to play in the Rose Bowl, as SI’s Michael Rosenberg detailed on Wednesday.
“It’s not about if the defense is better than the offense,” Michigan State senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler said during the team’s weekly press conference. “It’s about it being a team atmosphere and a family atmosphere, and that’s what we take away from coach [Mark Dantonio].”
Michigan State hasn’t played in The Granddaddy of Them All since 1988. Though it could earn a trip to Pasadena even with a loss (Wisconsin fell out of contention following last Saturday's 31-24 defeat to Penn State), it will look to put points on the board and stifle an explosive Ohio State attack. The Buckeyes have two of the Big Ten’s best offensive players in quarterback Braxton Miller (1,759 passing yards, 891 rushing yards, 29 total touchdowns) and running back Carlos Hyde (1,290 yards, 14 touchdowns); they're riding a 24-game winning streak that stretches across two full seasons.
Ohio State can sense just how close it is to playing for a national championship. That momentum is going to be tough for the Spartans to stop.
“When you look at what we've tried to do,” Dantonio said during his weekly press conference, “our motto really all season long has been to chase it. And that's what we've done. We've sort of come after every football team that we've played. Nothing has been easy as we've gone through the season, and I said way back when that they would be the ones, and now we have this opportunity to prove that.”
While Championship Week celebrates the teams playing to win their respective conferences, during the BCS era, it's also facilitated campaigning and stumping among programs with a shot at the BCS title game. It’s grating and sometimes illogical, but it has been perceived as a necessary evil with the human element still involved. People can always change their minds.
The Buckeyes don’t seem to think they need to make any additional case: They're one of two remaining power-conference unbeatens, and they believe their résumé speaks for itself.
“We play a game,” coach Urban Meyer said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “And for someone to ask about something after this game, I mean, that's cheating my football team, and there will be no conversation about what happens after this game until after the game.”
Still, that won’t prevent others from talking. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said it would be a “disservice to the nation” if a one-loss SEC champ was left out of the BCS title game, and he even threw out the word un-American on SportsCenter this week. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won’t resist any chance to get a barb in, also got in on the act. Although his comment may have been a bit surprising.
To some extent, Meyer is right: The Ohio State-Auburn debate is moot if the Buckeyes can’t beat Michigan State. And he’s not about to add any bulletin-board material when his team is already so close to its end goal.
• Luke Zimmermann, Land-Grant Holy Land: “Advanced metrics, regular metrics, computer rankings, human rankings. Ohio State's one of the nation's best teams, regardless of a paltry schedule. The state of the Big Ten nor Cal's 10-plus-year-later football caliber nosedive and Vanderbilt's cold feet aren't exactly in the Buckeyes' realm of control. Auburn proponents can make whatever case they want, but giving the Tigers credit for joining the SEC in 1932 is a bit of a stretch. Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic isn't exactly a world-beater nonconference slate, either.”
• Chris Vannini, The Only Colors: “MSU's offense is going to need to put together a string of long scoring drives and, on defense, avoid big plays. I think this game is going to end up be in the 30s. MSU's defense is all about forcing college offenses to make plays most of them can't. Ohio State can. A year ago, MSU took its first lead in the third quarter, but the Buckeyes quickly answered with a 63-yard touchdown pass that proved to be the winning score. MSU will key on Ohio State's top-ranked rushing attack, and it always leaves its cornerbacks on islands on the outside. Notre Dame just kept chucking it up hoping for a catch or a pass interference penalty. Braxton Miller will take his shots deep, and he's a lot better at completing them than he was earlier in his career.”
The extra point
What Michigan State has been able to accomplish this season is relatively remarkable. The Spartans were unranked coming into the year, had all kinds of trouble offensively and looked to their defense to manufacture points.
In this day and age, that type of philosophy doesn’t typically work. But through offensive growth and a consistently dominant defensive front, Michigan State is playing for the Big Ten title and is four points -- and a barrage of pass interference calls at Notre Dame on Sept. 21 -- away from being undefeated.
That said, there’s more than one reason Ohio State has won 24 consecutive games. People keep waiting for the Buckeyes to slip up, and they still haven’t. Whether that’s a testament to the coaching staff, to Miller’s maturation or the luck of the gods, Ohio State marches on.
The Buckeyes nearly watched their BCS title dreams die last Saturday in Ann Arbor. I can’t see Ohio State losing this one, even though it should be close.MANDEL: What happens if Ohio State, Florida State both lose?; more mail