COLUMBUS, Ohio—The kick that changed everything fluttered through the blustery night as the clock hit zero in a tie game. As Michigan State’s Michael Geiger’s 41-yard field goal attempt flipped end-over-end toward the uprights, it carried the fate of a game, a season and the national title race.
The driving rain that had fallen for most of the dismal afternoon for No. 3 Ohio State’s matchup with No. 9 Michigan State had finally ceased. And when Geiger’s kicked split the uprights to deliver a 17–14 Spartans victory, it offered a clarity that put into perspective two programs, one league race and the College Football Playoff. And in the nasty aftermath, we were all left wondering if we should have seen this surprising ending coming all along?
Michigan State was greeted with the collective groan of 108,975 drenched fans at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State, favored by nearly two touchdowns, lost its national title defense and 23-game winning streak and witnessed its narrative change from undefeated and untested to underwhelming and underachieving.
Suddenly, it was Michigan State, which entered the game the underdog and the afterthought, leaving with one of the most improbable victories in college football this year. The result was particularly impressive considering starting quarterback Connor Cook didn’t play.
The Spartans’ victory thrusts them back in the national title race, something that appeared a distant dream after they lost at Nebraska on a bad call on Nov. 7. If Michigan State (10–1) wins at home against Penn State next weekend, it will play Iowa (11–0) in the Big Ten title game in two weeks. The College Football Playoff race is still muddled, but a one-loss Big Ten champion with a convincing win over Oregon will be hard to leave out of the final four. “We cannot lose sight,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We have to win next week. We win next week, we at least control our own destiny.”
The fallout of Ohio State’s first loss in 30 regular season league games quickly overshadowed Michigan State’s victory. The Buckeyes’ national title hopes aren’t completely eliminated, but they’d need a few apocryphal results to thrust them back into the picture.
“We’ve gotta fix some obvious problems,” Meyer said. Ohio State had a downright anemic day on offense, as it got outgained 294–132, and questionable play calling got the ball in the belly of Heisman candidate Ezekiel Elliott just 12 times Saturday for 33 yards.
After Meyer spoke of obvious issues, new ones emerged. Elliott ripped Ohio State’s offensive coaches for not getting him the ball more about as bluntly as you’ll ever see a college player do: “We weren’t put in the right situations to win this game,” Elliott said.
Elliott, a true junior, said after the game there’s “no chance” of him coming back next year. (Quarterback Cardale Jonesalso tweeted this would be his last game at Ohio Stadium.) Elliott’s father, Stacy, said after the game that his son went to the hospital on Monday morning with an infection on his leg and wasn’t released until Wednesday. (Elliott wore a black wrap over the leg Saturday.) Elliott practiced Thursday, and Stacy Elliott said his son was 100% for Saturday. Whatever the reason, Elliott got just two carries in the second half and served as a blocker for much of it. “I'm disappointed in the play calling,” Elliott told a scrum of reporters after the game. “I'm disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently.”
Ohio State’s offense played so poorly it conceivably could have gotten shut out, a stunning departure from a team that led the Big Ten in scoring and entered this season with such a surplus of talent that coaches were worried about how to spread the ball around. The only two Ohio State scoring drives came courtesy of short fields off turnovers. The two touchdown drives totaled a combined 38 yards, and it’s telling that it took Ohio State 10 plays to go 32 yards on the first drive. Inconsistent play calling has hounded the Buckeyes this year after the departure of former coordinator Tom Herman. Co-coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck have been calling the plays to mixed results, and Meyer admitted that juggling quarterbacks early this year could have set the Buckeyes back in the passing game. Meyer took all the blame Saturday, saying he calls many of the plays anyway. “The finger will be pointed right here,” Meyer said. “And I have to do better.”
It was a familiar posture for this most bizarre Ohio State season, one in which the Buckeyes were somehow simultaneously undefeated yet untested, percolating with promise yet unsteady with delivery. Ohio State will likely end up with five or six first-round NFL draft picks but never flashed the dominance that should be inherent to that bushel of talent. The Buckeyes had dueling quarterbacks, a leaky offensive line and a banged up secondary. But with hindsight making things clearer, it seems obvious that Ohio State would struggle against the best team on its schedule when it never found consistency and rhythm against Indiana and Northern Illinois. The signs were there that the Buckeyes could end a game with just five first downs and nine completed passes. The consistency and results never matched the talent and potential, a legacy of this season that will undoubtedly haunt Meyer. “We've got to get a couple of first downs,” Meyer said, “and start finding a way to complete a pass and beat our rival.”
Let’s not let the unrest in the aftermath at Ohio State blur the reality of Saturday, however. Michigan State completely and thoroughly suppressed the will of Ohio State. The Spartans overwhelmed the Buckeyes’ vaunted defensive line that includes Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, an especially impressive feat considered Michigan State’s passing game offered no real threat with rotating back-ups Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry. The Spartans also overwhelmed Ohio State’s offensive line, holding the Buckeyes to 86 rushing yards on 29 carries. One collision at a time, Michigan State squeezed Ohio State’s soul until the final seconds when 5’8” Geiger’s 41-yard field goal cleared the uprights.
That’s when everything changed, and the bitter chill of a season of unfulfilled promise began to settle in on Columbus. When the shock wore off after a game of familiar issues, maybe we should have seen this coming all along.