Michigan State's disadvantages prove an advantage against Buckeyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On one sideline stood No. 3 Ohio State, defending national champion, winner of 23 consecutive games and 30 consecutive Big Ten regular-season games, at home before an announced crowd of 108,975, the most in the history of Ohio Stadium.

On the other sideline stood No. 9 Michigan State, which not only had to face the mighty Buckeyes in their beloved Horseshoe but also, for the first time in 37 games, had to do so without senior quarterback Connor Cook, whose sprained left shoulder prevented him from playing.

Did I mention Cook's replacements, junior Tyler O'Connor and sophomore Damion Terry, would get the first significant playing time of their college careers in a blustery cold front that dropped the wind chill after halftime to 32 degrees? And that the Buckeyes created two turnovers and committed none?

Put it all together, and yes, it's advantage, Sparty.

When Spartan kicker Michael Geiger, with that strong wind at his back, nailed a 41-yard field goal as time expired to upset the Buckeyes 17-14, the Big Ten East -- not to mention the College Football Playoff -- had been turned on its head. Yet the better team won.

No team has thrived more when overlooked than No. 9 Michigan State. You would think it would be tough to overlook a team that is 9-1, won the Big Ten just two years ago and has averaged nearly 11 wins a year for the past five years. But when you exist in the same state as the Maize and Blue and then the Big Ten's realignment puts you in the same division as Ohio State, you are going to live in the shadows.

Even when you overcome Michigan with a miracle punt block and return it for a touchdown. Even when you come into the Horseshoe with a 9-1 record and a top-10 rating.

"We came in with something to prove," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "Usually when you have that, you have a little chip on your shoulder, maybe, and you play a little better."

It didn't hurt that Geiger and O'Connor both grew up in Ohio. O'Connor said, with a touch of satisfaction, that Ohio State recruited him -- as a punter. On Friday night, Dantonio told O'Connor to be ready to start, but everyone waited to see Cook warm up Saturday. When he decided he couldn't go, O'Connor and Terry shared the duties.

"A game like this is very personal for guys like us," said Cook, another Ohioan. "To see them do well and go out and get a W, it's just great."

Just like that, Ohio State dropped to the back of the College Football Playoff line and now must depend on others. Michigan State, with two more wins, will be very difficult to leave behind.

The Spartans won Saturday because they controlled the line of scrimmage, especially on defense. This was the kind of November afternoon that made the Big Ten view the forward pass with suspicion until the 1980s. The Spartans ran the ball 51 times and threw 16 passes. They made 17 first downs. They held the ball for 38:10.

Ohio State ran the ball 29 times and threw 16 passes. That's right: Ohio State snapped the ball 45 times. The Buckeyes snapped it 75 times last week at Illinois. They snapped it 83 times earlier this year against Hawaii.

Michigan State is not Illinois, and it's sure not Hawaii. The Spartans held the Buckeyes to five first downs and a total of 132 total yards. That's 10 yards fewer than junior tailback Ezekiel Elliott averaged rushing in his first 10 games of the season.

Elliott finished with 33 yards on 12 carries. He was used so little that after the game, former Buckeye coach John Cooper was asking if Elliott was hurt ... only his pride and his Heisman chances.

"They beat us at the line of scrimmage, and we were unable to execute in the throw game," a disconsolate Urban Meyer said. "That was a very poor performance."

No last home game is played without a tinge of nostalgia, and Ohio State spent a lot of time on this raw, rainy Saturday afternoon honoring Buckeyes old and new.

Ohio State introduced 18 seniors before the game, with the fans saving the loudest roar for two-time Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller. Senior sousaphone player Neil Steffens dotted the "I" in Script Ohio. And midway through the first quarter, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith brought local resident and PGA champion Jason Day onto the field and awarded him a Buckeyes football jersey.

But the real honoree Saturday must have been former Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes because Meyer called a game Straight Outta Columbus circa 1973. He did everything the way Woody would have done it, save for shredding a first-down marker.

It would have been a nice touch if Meyer had stood in the 32-degree wind chill in a white, short-sleeve dress shirt, scarlet-and-gray tie and silver-rimmed glasses. But that would have given away his game plan.

Michigan State came into the game having allowed 29 passes of 20 yards or more, but Barrett only threw downfield twice -- both incomplete. Meyer played a field-position game and twice eschewed going for fourth-and-1 near midfield and waited for Michigan State to make mistakes. It looked as if it might work. Ohio State scored its first touchdown in the second quarter on a 32-yard drive that began after Sam Hubbard sacked Damion Terry from the blind side and forced a fumble, which Adolphus Washington recovered.

Ohio State scored its second touchdown in the third quarter, after Cameron Johnston knuckleballed a punt through the wind that clanged off Macgarrett Kings Jr.'s hands and rolled back to the Spartan 6, where Terry McLaurin curled his body around the ball.

But Michigan State responded to each Ohio State touchdown with a touchdown of its own on the ensuing possession. When Johnston pinned the Spartans at their 4 early in the fourth quarter, the oft-injured, much-maligned Michigan State offensive line went to work. Ohio State played as if it had been on the field for a long time, which it had.

The Spartans drove the ball near midfield and punted down to the Ohio State 7. Flipping the field worked beautifully. Ohio State meekly went three-and-out, and Michigan State took over at the Buckeye 48 with 4:07 to play. Eight plays later, after Meyer tried to ice Geiger, he swung his right leg through the kick that wrote his name in Spartan history.

"After I hit it, I knew it was going through," Geiger said. "I watched it for a second, as it flew the air, go straight, and I don't even know if I saw it go through the upright because by then I was gone. I was running."

Geiger sprinted downfield, his left arm up, his right arm turning like a windmill. His teammates didn't catch up to him until they reached the opposite end zone.

"I didn't want to get tackled or any of that," Geiger said. "I didn't want to have to pull a Jalen Watts-Jackson. I was trying to stay on my feet as long as possible."

Watts-Jackson, the hero of the 27-23 victory at Michigan, suffered a dislocated hip in the celebratory dogpile. These Spartans reacted as if they had been there before.

"Our football team has learned how to win over the course of time," Dantonio said. "We've lost four times in three years right now. We've got to win one more. That's a very important game. We understand how to win. It doesn't matter how you win. It's just that you win."

With a win next Saturday at home against Penn State, Michigan State will clinch the East and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game against No. 5 Iowa. The Hawkeyes are undefeated. They might be ranked higher. The Spartans probably hope so.