Source: USA TODAY
EAST LANSING, Mich. — The 14-3 final score was pedestrian, the other Michigan State numbers far from it as the regular season ended at Spartan Stadium and the clock on Ohio State and a shot at the Rose Bowl began.
MSU scratched out a win over an unyielding Minnesota team to finish 8-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in school history – and become the first team in league history to go 8-0 with every win by double figures. Michigan in 1943 was the last Big Ten team to go unbeaten (6-0) and win every game by 10 points or more.
It was the 40th win for MSU’s 18-man senior class, the winningest group the Spartans have ever had. And it capped the third 11-win season in school history, all in the past four years under Mark Dantonio.
“Not too many football programs in the country can say those things,” Dantonio said after No. 11 MSU (11-1) relied on three turnovers and 134 Jeremy Langford rushing yards to hold off the Gophers (8-4, 4-4) in front of a mostly packed stadium Saturday.
The best numbers of all for MSU? Zero and one. Zero major injuries entering the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. And one victory needed, over No. 3 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0), to reach the program’s first Rose Bowl in 26 years.
“When you put something on the table where it’s, ‘You win you go here, you lose you go here’ … it’s very exciting,” said Dantonio, whose 2011 team lost a 42-39 heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the title game. “It’s a one-and-done type thing.”
The Spartans won’t bring full momentum to it – though neither will the Buckeyes after their 42-41 escape at Michigan.
MSU’s defense gave up 100 yards to a team and individual (David Cobb, 27 rushes for 101 yards) for the second time this season. The Gophers only averaged 2.5 yards per rush and 3.3 per play, completing just 9-of-25 passes.
But their 8-for-20 third-down success and MSU’s 0-for-8 day on third down helped Minnesota possess the ball for nearly 39 minutes and run 75 plays to MSU’s 51.
“Things just really didn’t go our way on offense,” said MSU sophomore quarterback Connor Cook, who had has least effective day since a 14-0 win over Purdue on Oct. 19. “We’ve got to be better on third down. But we’re resilient.”
Cook led touchdown drives to start both halves, finishing 10-for-20 for 143 yards, with a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price. He also threw a pick and lost a fumble, plays that helped Minnesota stay close.
But sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes had his first two interceptions of the season and senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover stripped Minnesota backup quarterback Mitch Leidner with the Gophers driving late. Senior end Denzel Drone jumped on it and that was it.
MSU’s defense has held five of its past six opponents without a touchdown. It was a fitting way for the senior-laden unit to finish the regular season, with senior linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough combining for 22 tackles.
“Oh, we’re losing some great ones,” said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and they’re gearing up for their greatest opportunity.
“Ohio State,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said, “is on the clock.”
Joe Rexrode also writes for The Detroit Free Press.