EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Big Ten East race is coming down to the final two weeks of the season. Counting the Big Ten championship game, the next three weeks will decide which team – or teams – from the Big Ten will have the best chance to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Michigan State is right in the middle of that decision-making process. It’s just not the way the Spartans expected to be a part of the action.
Michigan State is the reigning Big Ten champions, but it won’t be repeating. A 49-0 win over Rutgers last Saturday snapped a seven-game losing streak and gave Michigan State its first Big Ten victory of the season. How times have changed. This time last season, the Spartans were preparing for a Top-10 matchup at Ohio State with the division title on the line.
Now, they’re playing for pride as they prepare to face an Ohio State at home Saturday afternoon. Ohio State, ranked No. 2 in the latest CFP poll, is a team battling for a spot in the Big Ten championship game and a return to the CFP, which it won two seasons ago. The Buckeyes (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) are tied with No. 3 Michigan and No. 8 Penn State for the Big Ten East lead.
So this week matters to the race. So does next week, because Michigan State (3-7, 1-6) plays at Penn State to close out the season on Nov. 26.
It is a motivator that the Spartans can affect the Big Ten race and CFP selections, according to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. He didn’t say it was the biggest motivator for his team, but neither did he downplay it as a factor.
“I think they naturally do. I think that’s pretty natural that you want to be playing for something,” Dantonio said. “So, you’ve got a little bit of added significance there, but I think more importantly, it’s how you are going to measure up. Right now, (the Buckeyes) are the No. 2 team in the country. This is what has been going on in the past. This is where we are right now.
“We’ve led in every football game. Every football game, I think, has been pretty competitive. We are where we are, but this is a way to move forward, you know, as a program. So, you’ve got to get yourself ready to play at the highest level.”
Ohio State was also ranked No. 2 last season when then No. 9-Michigan State won 17-14 on Michael Geiger’s 41-yard field goal on the final play of regulation. Michigan State is 4-8 against Ohio State since 1998 when one or both teams are ranked. Three of those four wins have come when Ohio State has been ranked either No. 1 or 2 in the country.
The teams have split their last four games since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012.
“I feel like our guys, we just always come to play in the big games, and we play confident in those games,” Michigan State senior middle linebacker Riley Bullough said. “That’s extremely important. If you don’t go in and believe you’re going to win the game, you don’t stand a shot from the beginning. Our guys have played against them, we’ve won, so we definitely have the belief that we can get the job done.
“We just have to understand Ohio State’s a great team and we’re going to have to play some pretty good ball.”
Ohio State’s two wins against Michigan State under Meyer have come at Spartan Stadium, a 17-16 win in 2012 and 49-37 in 2014. Quarterback J.T. Barrett threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns in the 2014 game and added another 86 yards and two touchdowns on the ground for Ohio State.
Barrett is now a senior and this season he became Ohio State’s career leader in total touchdowns and passing touchdowns.
Michigan State held Ohio State to a total of 132 yards of offense last season. Barrett had 44 yards rushing and just 46 yards passing.
“We think he played the best game of his college career here in ’14,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “He came out here and played really well, so he’s going to have memories of that game. He’s a dual-threat guy. He’s not going to outrun you down the field, but if he needs to, he’s going to pull it down and he’s going to take off running. He’s a guy we need to stop and a guy we have our eye on every year.”
Running backs LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes combined for 123 yards rushing for Michigan State in last season’s win in Columbus. Scott has had four 100-yard games this season, including three in the last four weeks, and leads Michigan State with 775 yards rushing.
Scott acknowledges that having a chance to finish the season strong against two teams in a championship chase is a motivator.
“Our season didn’t go as planned and we’re still playing like we’ve got that chip on our shoulder,” Scott said. “We were going through our numbers the other day. We’re not a 3-7 team. Half of the time we’re making mistakes and killing ourselves.
“We’re setting ourselves back. We get a huge play, then we get a penalty or something like that. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have won any of those games. We’re definitely capable of doing it.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo