EAST LANSING – Bombs away. A dream exploded once again Saturday night when Michigan State faced Ohio State, but this time — unlike last year’s Big Ten title game — it was the green hopes that turned to vapor. No national title. Likely no conference title. It all came apart on a dark and cold November night in a blur of Ohio State skill players and a flurry of long passes that seemed to ka-boom every time they landed in a Buckeye’s mitts.
Bombs away. Final score, OSU 49, MSU 37. This game, for a time, had the frenetic feel of a cartoon fight, where the first character grabs the second, who trips the first, who knocks down the second. MSU surged, OSU caught up. OSU fumbled. MSU missed a field goal.
“Bottom line is we didn’t stop them,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio would admit, then add, honestly, “couldn’t stop them.”
The latter is worse than the former. By the end of the first half, the Spartans had already given up more yards (327) and points (28) than they usually surrender in an entire game. Ohio State, despite two lost fumbles and six yellow flags, was winning by seven.
And right from the start, one name kept bobbing to the top of the barrel: Joe Thomas (J.T.) Barrett, the redshirt freshman quarterback who was supposed to be on the sideline this season, watching Braxton Miller.
Barrett was the story — and the single biggest reason Michigan State is out of the running for everything it wanted this morning. Five touchdowns? Two rushing? Three passing? 386 total yards — by himself? Against this defense? Are you kidding?
“Just doing my job,” he told the ABC cameras.
What’s his job? Demolition? Remember, Barrett is a redshirt freshman who was injured his senior year of high school. So he had nearly two years of rust before being rushed into action this year (after Miller was lost for the season).
But Saturday night, on the road, in his ninth college start, against his first-ranked opponent — he outplayed everyone. He was an arsenal. Total destruction.
So many long gains for OSU
“I just saw him grow up,” OSU coach Urban Meyer told the media of his quarterback. “He’s a good leader and a tough guy.”
He’s also just a kid. But Barrett embarrassed the highly touted MSU defense Saturday night. He was part of nearly every big Buckeye play that didn’t involve coughing up a football. He threw a 79-yard touchdown pass, a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 43-yard completion on a third-and-23! When Michigan State tried to close in down the stretch, Barrett broke free for a 55-yard killer run, shaking defenders like a slalom skier shaking gates.
Barrett’s touch was so powerfully perfect, it was like watching a muscleman play the harp, his passes landing in the fingertips of receivers who consistently outran their MSU defenders. And momentum? He steered it. Consider the second quarter, when MSU recovered a fumbled kickoff and could have slapped a 14-point deficit on the butterfingered Buckeyes. Instead, MSU went backward, had a touchdown taken off the board and missed a field-goal attempt.
The next play, Barrett heaved the ball halfway to Ohio. Michael Thomas caught it, and the game was tied.
“It goes from 28-14 to 21-all,” Dantonio lamented. “All of a sudden, momentum just flipped.”
You can say that four times — because that’s how many straight touchdowns the Buckeyes hung on the scoreboard. They only punted twice all night, the second time in the closing minute of the game.
Everything about this loss was disappointing for the Spartans. But the worst part was the shredding of their defense. Pat Narduzzi’s usually excellent squad was plain and simple outrun and outmaneuvered, time after time. Running backs surged through huge holes and went galloping. Receivers outsped defenders like Jamaican Olympic sprinters. And Barrett took them apart.
Forty-nine points surrendered? That’s the most this year — the previous high being 46 by Oregon, the only other top-tier team MSU has faced. And here’s the worst part. Saturday night, the Spartans had no turnovers. Which means every one of those OSU points was earned.
Tough times for the Big Ten
“You always try,” a reporter noted to Dantonio, “to keep talk about a national playoff away from your players—”
“This ought to do it,” he snapped.
Yes, it should. But let’s be clear. This was for pole position in a race that may not have meant much — at least as far as a national championship is concerned. Ohio State, ranked No. 13, hadn’t played a top 20 opponent all year. The Spartans, ranked No. 8, had only played one team in the top 10 — Oregon — and lost. They were squaring off for the Big Ten’s only shot at maybe — maybe — slipping into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
But the Spartans (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) lost more than that chance with this defeat. They are all but out of the conference title picture as well, meaning this season will not equal last. “We had a great year last year,” Dantonio said. “We’ll have a good year this year.”
Sure. But they were exposed badly — especially defensively. If young J.T. Barrett can do this to them, what might Jameis Winston do? Or Dak Prescott? Saturday will not help Big Ten arguments that it belongs in the national playoff discussion. For now, it’s a local league.
But even on that local level, this was a shakeup. We are used to the big game against Ohio State coming a few weeks later in November and a few miles down the road in Ann Arbor. But college football is more about coaching than colors. This rivalry is Mark Dantonio’s program versus Urban Meyer’s now.
Score one for Meyer, who is yet to lose a regular-season Big Ten game and whose team was clearly better prepared. MSU has spoiled chances for OSU before, in ’72, in ’74, in ’98 and last year. This time it was reversed. And all the promise of the 2014 MSU season screeched to a stop in the cold and dark, and all the green lights turned Buckeye scarlet.