“This is the greatest day of my life!”
Proclaimed in the wake of Michigan State’s 34 – 24 upset win over second-ranked Ohio State, this sentiment wasn’t spoken by a usually subdued Mark Dantonio, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook or even an aging Spartan alumni.
It was screamed by a thrilled little boy.
With newly-crowned Big Ten Champion Michigan State celebrating their accomplishment amid confetti and trampled rose petals, the young boy— at least 7-years-old, clad in green, face painted and wearing a foam helmet—stood on the front row of an emptying Lucas Oil Stadium with his Indianapolis-based Spartan family.
Deservedly up well past his bed time, the boy was dwarfed in stature and enthusiasm by his father. A 1994 graduate of the East Lansing-based University, the man wore a big smile. Michigan State hadn’t just clinched its first conference championship since 2010, doing so against an Ohio State team that hadn’t lost since Sept. 17, 2011.
They had clinched their first trip to the Rose Bowl in 25 years.
Saturday night’s game is probably the greatest day of many Spartan’s lives, especially for the players who gave MSU its first 12-win season.
“Sometime this summer I looked around and (asked) who was alive in 1988?” Dantonio told the Big Ten Network. “We don’t have a guy that was alive since we’ve been to a Rose Bowl.”
That’s going to change now. But for two quarters Saturday night it looked like Buckeyes (12-1, 8 – 1), led by Braxton Miller, would recover from their worst first quarter in over a year to claim another Big 10 Title.
Going into Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, Ohio State had yet to face a Top-10 team in 24 games under Urban Meyer.
After a quarter and a half, it showed. Michigan State led Ohio State 17 – 0.
Michigan State’s nation-leading defense forced the Buckeyes to punt on both of their possessions, keeping them off the scoreboard in the first quarter for the first time since Oct. 27, 2012, when Ohio State beat Penn State. It was also the first time OSU had trailed by more than 10 points all season.
Then, with nine minutes left in the first half, Miller showed up.
The junior quarterback broke down the right sideline and on a run filled with more dodges than a car dealership, made it 48 yards to the Spartan’s 34-yard line. Three plays later Miller completed a 20-yard pass to Corey Brown, making it 17-7 Michigan State with 4:06 left in the half.
“We opened it up a little bit, let Braxton throw the ball,” Meyer said. “The best thing was our defense really played well for about three or four series there. We were able to take the lead. Then we lost it.”
One of these statements is true. After giving up 17 points through 20 minutes of play, the Buckeye defense started looking like the best in the country instead of Michigan State. While Miller led Ohio State on four scoring drives over their next six, taking a 24 – 17 lead, the defense forced MSU into three punts and one interception in-between scores.
Dantonio attributed the 24-point run to the defense giving up too many “loose plays,” specifically to Braxton, including his 48-yard run with the Spartans up 17.
“Miller scrambled down the right sideline…we didn’t get there on a blitz. He hit a seam route,” Dantonio said. “I thought he threw the ball well. I thought the ball was on target.”
While both head coaches oddly praised Miller’s arm, the junior’s success came almost solely with his legs. Miller only completed eight of his 21 attempts on the night for 101 yards and the touchdown to Brown. Only two of his completions came in the second half.
On the ground Miller looked poised to carry the Buckeyes to victory, going for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 21 attempts.
“(Michigan State), it’s a good defense. Some of the things they were doing outside, we took care of it. I got a few good runs,” Miller said.
Right before halftime Miller helped set up a 28-yard field goal from Drew Basil on a seven play, 53-yard drive in just 1:23. The drive might not have been successful had Miller not bounced back from a six-yard sack on the drive’s first play with a 15-yard run. Five plays later the ball was through the uprights.
Ohio State then started the second half right where they left off, with Miller leading the Buckeyes on a 75-yard drive resulting in Miller scoring on a bootleg run from eight-yards out. Two drives later, after a possession from a Michigan State turnover came up blank, Miller ran in a six-yard touchdown for the Buckeyes final score of the game, making it 24 – 17.
Then suddenly Michigan State’s top defense–led by senior line backer Max Bullough–reappeared and so did the Ohio State team without experience against a top-10 foe.
Spartan Defense Triumphs
Miller didn’t complete a pass in the fourth quarter and none of OSU’s final four drives didn’t last longer than five plays. It also didn’t help that Michigan State limited the Buckeyes to 1 of 10 on third down conversions–for the entire game.
“Those are things we’ve been able to do to all of teams we faced for the most part of the season,” said Bullough, who finished with three tackles and half a sack. “All of the things we focus on each week, we talk about winning money down, trying to do things to confuse them.”
Entering the championship game, Michigan State had allowed their opponents to convert on third down only 29 percent of the time.
The defense also corralled Miller for two sacks, but obviously couldn’t fully contain the Ohio State rushing attack, keeping it to 273 yards, well below its 321 yard average.
The Other Quarterback
Thanks to his 304 yards and three touchdown on 24 of 40 passing, Connor Cook was named the game’s MVP and will be the first Michigan State quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl this century, following Bobby McAllister in 88′.
Good thing for Michigan State he’s only a sophomore.
“I’ve always had confidence in (Cook). I told people last year…I knew he had greatness in him,” said senior guard Blake Treadwell. “The journey was a little rocky for him at first, but I knew in my heart he was going to lead us to big things.”
The most important of his three touchdowns came with 11:41 left in the game, when Cook found a wide-open Josiah Price for a nine-yard touchdown pass. Price, a native of Greenwood, IN, had been unable to haul in two previous passes thrown his way, but the one he did put the Spartans on top for good, 27-24.
Before that though, Conner had to do his own Braxton Miller impersonation. Still down 24 – 17 in the third quarter after a huge Jeremy Langford 34-yard run to the OSU 41, Cook and company faced 4th and 2 at the 33.
Cook took the snap, went left and instead of going for the option, plowed ahead for six-yards. Michael Geiger then kicked a 44-yard field goal that barely made it over the cross bar to make it 24 – 20.
“Anytime you can get a long drive like that (and) your’re making big plays in the run game, it instills confidence in you, makes you want to make bigger plays,” Cook said.
“We stayed the course. We having a tough time running the football,” Dantonio said. “We just sort of battle, battle, battle. Towards the end of the game, Jeremy Langford will bust one.”
Langford did bust one. Right through the Buckeyes defense– which had combined for eight tackles for a loss to that point– and 26-yards into the endzone painted in Spartan green to five Michigan State the 34-24 lead with just over two minutes left.
The Michigan State contingent of an event record 66,002 fans was sent into a frenzy as the Ohio State fans that made up three-fourths of the crowd were silenced. It was a sharp contrast from two drives before when MSU saw a punt go just 19 yards after being tipped, giving the Buckeyes the ball at the Spartans’ 47.
When it was over, Langford had 137-yards rushing on 24 attempts.
When it was over, all Langford wanted to do was retreat to the locker room and dance to “Type of Way” by Rich Homie Quan.
When it was all over, the 2013 Michigan State Spartans had given one boy the greatest day of his life.