EAST LANSING - Michigan State will be coming off its worst offensive performance in six weeks when the Spartans play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, Saturday.
And with it, the responsibility of the Spartan offense will expand this weekend. Michigan State not only needs to score enough points to stay competitive and win against No. 2 ranked Ohio State, the Spartans also need to possess the ball, run clock and limit Ohio State's possessions.
"You want to keep those guys off the field," said Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner. "They are very electric on offense, so the more they are on the sideline the better off we're going to be."
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring offense and total offense.
Iowa managed to lead Ohio State at halftime, 17-10, back on Oct. 19. The key? Ohio State only and the ball three times in the first half.
Iowa possessed the ball with its outside zone run scheme, complemented by counter-boot passes to the tight end. Iowa had drives of 12 plays (TD), 10 plays (field goal) and 15 plays (TD) in melting the first half away.
Ohio State scored on two of its three possessions in the first half, but was stopped on downs on the third.
Ohio State (12-0) scored every time it had the ball in the second half and pulled away for a 34-24 victory. The Buckeyes never had to punt against Iowa, and did not turn the ball over. But the Hawkeyes wrote half the script on what's needed to hang with the Buckeyes and get a chance to beat them - possess the ball on offense. Michigan State's offense might be nicely equipped to repeat some of that script.
No. 9-ranked Michigan State (11-1) led the Big Ten in time of possession most of the season, but fell to second place in that category after watching Minnesota hold a commanding 38:41 to 21:19 edge last week.
Michigan State's top problem last week came on third down. The Spartans were 0-for-8 on third down against the Gophers, again revering a season-long trend that had seen the Spartans excel in that area. MSU finished the season ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in third down conversion percentage, after ranking No. 2 in that category for most of November.
"Last week we got ourselves into too many third-and-long situations," Warner said. "We got stopped on third-and-short, which shouldn't happen."
MSU failed on a pair of third-and-three opportunities, and a third-and-four against the Gophers.
1. On a third-and-three stoppage at the 31-yard line in the first half, Jeremy Langford was stopped for a gain of 2. MSU right tackle Fou Fonoti missed a down block on an inside linebacker on a 'power' run to his side.
Then MSU failed to pick up fourth-and-one with a quick-tempo, no-huddle, inside zone run out of the shot gun. Sophomore center Jack Allen missed a block on Minnesota DT Ra'shede Hageman.
If Allen has missed more than two or three blocks all year, they weren't detected by SPARTAN Magazine's unofficial weekly film study. Allen has been excellent this year, and earned Second-Team All-Big-Ten honors. But on that play, Allen - perhaps focused on a quick-tempo, shot-gun snap - allowed Hageman to cross his face and wipe him out of the way in tackling Langford for a loss.
2. On third-and-four later in the second quarter, Connor Cook had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.
3. On third-and-three in the fourth quarter, Langford was stopped for a gain of 2 out of the Wildcat formation, a play concept that hasn't worked well for MSU since Le'Veon Bell hooked up with Lawrence Thomas for a crucial pass completion late in last year's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU.
"It's a situation where maybe our game plan was not such that was going to allow us to be successful," Warner said of the third down problems, "and partially some guys just need to make plays."
4. One of the third-down stoppages came via a terrible spot on a pass completion to Aaron Burbridge on a third-and-six slant route.
5. Cook threw an incompletion on third-and-17 in the first quarter, one snap after being flagged for intentional grounding.
The intentional grounding came on a second-and-five call at the Gopher 39-yard line out of an empty formation. Prior to that, the Spartans hadn't been stopped on the first 10 plays of the game, while using the run game and play-action passes. MSU obviously regretted the choice of going with an empty formation pass play on second-and-manageable.
6. Cook had a pass batted down on third-and-11 in the second quarter. [MSU was in third-and-11 because Langford slipped on a zone play to the left on first down. And then MacGarrett Kings dropped a pass on second down.]
MSU's last two third-down failures came when the Spartans were trying to run clock at the end of the game rather than run up the score.
Of the eight third-down failures, chalk up five of them as true negatives. Two of the five were third-and-long.
Ohio State is ranked No. 4 in the conference in total defense, despite occasional leaky performances - such as last week's problems in a 42-41 victory over Michigan.
All defenses are pretty good in third-and-long, but Ohio State is especially good in obvious pass situations.
"They like to get you in third-down situations where you feel that you have to throw the football and then they unleash some people at you," Warner said. "They have some athletic players in Noah Spence and Ryan Shazier, guys that play various positions.
"Spence is a hybrid guy that can stand up in their odd (3-4) front, and he puts his hand in the ground in their even (4-3) front. He is very athletic, the most athletic guy up there.
"Across the board, they are probably the most athletic team we have played, the front seven especially.
"You get in third down, they are going to put those guys in positions to rush the passer and they are good at it. They will put pressure on you. They lead the conference in sacks.
"They try to get you in those situations. It's our job to try to stay out of those situations."
Cook was 10-of-20 for 143 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT against the Gophers. On the interception, he rolled right and threw across his body for Tony Lippett with :12 seconds left in the first half.
Later in the game, Cook checked away from Keith Mumphery as he came wide open on a double move, deep down the left sideline on what could have been a long TD pass.
"Connor just came off of that read too early," Warner said.
Cook talks about the shaky performance against Minnesota, and the state of the offense heading into the Ohio State game:
During Sunday's teleconference, Cook was asked if it gets his "juices flowing" to play a defense that gave up 600-plus yards the previous week.
"Any time you see your opponent give up that many yards the week before play them, obviously you're licking your chops, you're feeling a little more confident, you're feeling more excited for the game and stuff," Cook said.
Warner was asked if he felt the same way.
"I see the best defense we're going to play this year. I see a Michigan team that played very well against them. I see an Ohio State defense that is more athletic than any team we've played.
"Say what you want about what happened last week, Devin Gardner played very well and Michigan played very well. My hat is off to Michigan more than me looking at Ohio State and saying this is not a good defense because they are."
So Michigan's 41-point performance is fool's gold as far as Warner is concerned?
"Absolutely," he said. "We know going into this game that we have to play our best game of the year."
Dealing With Shazier
Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier leads the Big Ten in tackles with 122, tackles for loss with 21 and is sixth in sacks with six.
Shazier (6-2, 222, Jr., Pompano Beach, Fla.) plays with heat-seeking acceleration, and surprising physicality between the tackles.
"He is super fast," Cook said. "I think the speed is what stands out the most. And just the bone-crushing hits he delivers. He brings the boom, lowers his shoulder, hits the guys really hard. That stands out.
"He's a physical player and covers a lot of ground out there, tackles well in space. Not too much that stands out where, 'Maybe we can get him here, maybe we can get him there, maybe this is weak part.' I really haven't seen a weak part of his game, so he's a great pass rusher when he blitzes, he's a great tackler in space and when he drops in coverage."
Cook admitted that early-game jitters affected his accuracy in his first start in September, his first road start at Notre Dame, the pivotal game at Nebraska in November, and the rivalry game against Michigan.
Now, the sophomore will be playing against his home state Buckeyes in arguably the most important Michigan State football game since 1966. The jitter reading will presumably be high for Cook in this game. Warner has a plan for the jitters.
"I think it just comes down to preparation," said Warner, a former quarterback at Syracuse. "If you prepare and you go into a game with confidence, I think that makes you play that much better or that much more at ease.
"Obviously the Michigan game was a big game for him, a big stage. The Nebraska game was a big stage, so hopefully he sort of worked through that a little bit and can come out right off the bat and play well."
Warner says former Spartan QB Kirk Cousins was more prepared for the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game than any quarterback he has ever worked with. Mark Dantonio anticipated that Cousins would be in contact with Cook at some point this week. "They have been in contact at times throughout the season," Dantonio said.
Cook set out this week planning to emulate Cousins' level of readiness.
"I talked with Coach Warner earlier this week and he mentioned heading into this game Kirk just had blinders on, was so prepared," Cook said on Tuesday. "Kirk watched a lot more film than he normally would, and that's the same thing I'm going to have. I'm going to put the blinders on, I'm going to get in and watch so much more film than I have.
"I've already been watching a lot throughout the season, but this is the most important week of our entire lives. Definitely it's the most important week for my life since I've been alive, stuff you dream about, the implications that are riding on this game. So you can't come away from this game with regrets or anything, so I'm going into this game with no regrets, prepared my butt off, getting the film, watching the film of Ohio State, and just going over our game plan."
Cook is 9-1 as a starter this season, and 9-0 when he starts and finishes a game. He says he takes a more astute eye into the film room now than he did in September.
"You probably do look for different things that you wouldn't really look for if you were playing your first Big Ten game of the season," Cook said. "Obviously you're watching film and breaking it down, looking at Ohio State's defense but maybe analyzing players more, looking at cut‑ups of different players."
Ohio State beat Michigan State 17-16 last season in the Big Ten opener. Ohio State players point to that game as the one that helped them believe that they could be a special team, leading to a school-record win streak over the course of two seasons.
For Michigan State, the hard-luck loss to the Buckeyes set the stage for a maddening 2012 season, with five losses coming by a total of 13 points.
Memorable moments from last year's game:
Then-senior Johnny Adams gave up a 63-yard TD pass to Devin Smith on a go route down the right sideline, giving OSU a 17-13 lead.
"When I watched the film, last year we gave up one deep ball when we were ahead," Dantonio said. "We've got to play that more effectively, but it was a great throw and catch."
Michigan State receivers dropped six passes and defensive backs dropped at least two interceptions.
"We had opportunities," Dantonio said. "We dropped a couple interceptions, one that would have been six."
Kurtis Drummond recovered a fumble at the MSU 32-yard line after Max Bullough jarred the ball loose from OSU QB Braxton Miller. Drummond scooped the ball and proceeded down the sideline toward what would have been a touchdown. However, the play was blown dead as officials thought Drummond was down. Replays show that Drummond was not down and should have been allowed to go the distance for a touchdown and a 20-17 Spartan lead with 12:14 to play.
Keith Mumphery turned in a breath-taking, tackle-breaking, 29-yard TD reception which gave MSU a 13-10 midway through the third quarter.
"We played hard, it was a game of inches," Dantonio said. "On defense, we tackled pretty well."
Ohio State rushed for 204 yards, and exhausted the last 4:10 of the game with nine rushing attempts, including a 5-yard run by Carlos Hyde on third-and-four with about 1:30 left and MSU out of time outs.
"They found a way to grind it out, and that's what won the game," Dantonio said. "We didn't get the ball back with four minutes to go."
The Buckeye offense is better this year. So is the Spartan defense.
"I think what's made our defense better are the takeaways, the sacks, and just another year of experience with our guys who were playing last year," Dantonio said. "Shilique Calhoun had an incredible year. Last year he was our third defensive end and probably didn't play as much in that football game because it was earlier in the year. So he's obviously matured greatly in just a year's time. And I would say the same thing about some of our other players. Trae Waynes didn't play in that game at all last year, and he's a very reliable corner, has huge potential for big plays."
Cook didn't play in the MSU-OSU game last year at Spartan Stadium, but players reviewed that matchup as part of game prep this week.
"We feel like last year was definitely a game that got away from us, slipped away," Cook said. "It was in our grasp at the end and feel like it was a game that we definitely should have won. We're obviously looking at last year's film, watching it. We feel like it's the same group of guys we're going up against and it's pretty much the same group of guys that we had last year. So it's going to be a similar rematch, and we feel like we played well enough to win, like our offense come a long way since then. I feel like our defense has come a long way since then, too."
Ohio State has the most physical offensive line you will ever see within a spread offense. That's what give OSU the unique ability to run clock at the end of games, and maintain consistency against physical defensive fronts.
Spartan defensive players haven't seen a team operate on offense with the all-around talent and skill of the Buckeye players, but MSU is at least familiar with the style of play.
Senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, who will be key in the interior against OSU's punishing inside zone runs, talks about defending the Buckeyes, as well as his progress as a student-athlete:
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in sacks with 39. Michigan State's offense is tied with Iowa for fewer sacks allowed, with 12.
Iowa allowed zero sacks to the Buckeyes.
Michigan State's Fonoti has had some difficult moments in the past two weeks. In addition to missing a block on a third-and-three stoppage against the Gophers, Fonoti was also beaten for a sack and fumble in the Minnesota game. One week earlier, Fonoti was beaten for a sack at Northwestern.
Much is made about the importance of playing indoors for kickers, quarterbacks and receivers, but Fonoti - a California native and junior college transfer - might be eager to get back to climate-controlled football this weekend. He will also be playing in the adopted hometown of his cousin Tupe Peko, who is a former Spartan offensive lineman and NFL Draft pick. Peko is now a police officer in Indianapolis.
Michigan State's offense was highly criticized in September, as the Spartans were searching for stability at the QB position and auditioning running backs.
Michigan State's offense enjoyed a solid run in the conference season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten in scoring in conference games, and sixth in total yards.
"We have an offense here at Michigan State, not just a defense," Cook said.
Players are aware of the widespread belief that the Spartans are strong on only one side of the ball.
"When we hear stuff like that, we take offense to it and we're going to have that extra motivation throughout the weekend, and it's going to make us play a lot more harder on Saturday," Cook said.
That sounds fine with Warner.
"I think we play better when we have a chip on our shoulder," he said.
Cook on the importance of this game for an Ohio-born player:
"Growing up in Ohio everyone wants to go to Ohio State, everyone has dreams and aspirations of going to that school, and if they don't recruit you, guys have that extra motivation when they play against them just like Central Michigan and Michigan State. When we play Central Michigan we say all the guys are going to play extra hard, they're going to bring their "A" game, they're going to work super hard. The game is going to be a little bit more physical just because they're a little upset maybe that they didn't get recruited by Michigan State.
"Same thing playing Ohio State. We have a lot of guys from Ohio on our football team that maybe if Ohio State did recruit them or Ohio State did offer them they would have gone there. We do feel like guys like Travis Jackson, guys like Denicos Allen, when we play a team like that from our home state, teams that we liked growing up and they didn't recruit us, we're definitely going to play with an extra edge."
Warner on Cook's talents: "Connor adds things that previous quarterbacks around here have not had from an athletic standpoint, so we don't feel we need to have as much stuff in from a drop back standpoint. We've expanded the play-action playbook. We have taken a little bit away from drop-back, and added a little bit in the run game and play-action pass."
Warner on Cook being named Second-Team All-Big Ten: "I was very happy for him, and my hat is off to Brad Salem who worked with him and brought him along. And he is just scratching the surface because there are a lot of mistakes that he makes throughout the course of a season that all first-year starters are going to make that if he just overcomes those things he can be even better."
Warner, on what he saw in Cook as a high school prospect: "I saw a good-sized kid with athletic ability. I just thought he threw the ball very well, very accurate, and a quick release. He had what we're looking for."
Warner on pre-game preparations: "You work year-around for an opportunity like this, so we're trying to make sure we're not missing anything."
Three And Out
Three questions for Warner:
1. What do you remember about the aftermath of the 2011 loss to Wisconsin? What did you do after the game?
"To be honest with you, I sat out in the hallway (at the hotel) with a couple other coaches and just talked. Our families were in bed, the kids were in bed, so we sat out in the hallway for a while. I couldn't tell you what time it was, but it was quite a while."
2. What do you have with you in the coaches box during a game, other than notes and charts? Any food?
"I gave up smokeless tobacco a lot of years ago. Somehow or another I've been able to stay off of it.
"Just a lot of gum and hot coffee."
3. Is mild-mannered Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman a little more lively for a game like this, this week?
"He's a little bit more on edge than normal, which is good to see."