Nov. 23, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EVANSTON, Ill. - In the span of 13 weeks, the Michigan State Spartans have changed the narrative from what they weren't to what they are.
Back in September, Connor Cook wasn't the answer at quarterback. Jeremy Langford couldn't get it done at tailback. Wide receiver Bennie Fowler didn't have what it takes to be a difference-maker. There wasn't anyone capable of filling the void at tight end, so it's a good thing the defense was even better than advertised because it at least gave MSU a chance to be in close ballgames.
During Saturday's 30-6 domination of Northwestern, Cook put up more career-high numbers despite 23-degree weather and wind gusts of up to 30 mph, Langford rushed for more than 100 yards in the sixth-straight game to surpass 1,000 for the season and Fowler proved to be a game-changer with an 87-yard touchdown reception.
In the afterglow of their seventh consecutive win, the 13th-ranked Spartans (10-1, 7-0 Big Ten) had to remind no one that: They are the Legends Division champions for the second time in the three seasons since the conference split into two entities, they are headed to their second Big Ten title game in Indianapolis and they are a regular-season-ending victory against Minnesota away from vying for the school's first Bowl Championship Series bid, if not from the Rose Bowl by winning the final, then as an at-large invitee.
Since emerging from what had been an unnerving four-quarterback competition, Cook has evolved from the tentative quarterback he was in the 17-13 loss on the big stage at Notre Dame to a 9-1 starter. He completed 16-of-24 passes for a career-high 293 yards and two touchdowns while combining with Fowler to equal the fourth-longest pass play in school history.
"You always want to set your goals high and you always want to try to achieve the best, but during that time (early in the season) things weren't going really the way I planned and I wasn't separating myself all that much," Cook said. "But, I'm a hard worker and I always believed in myself.
"And I felt just with the guys we had, this was possible. With the defense that we have, with the athletes we have on offense, and the coaching staff that we have, as long as I just worked hard, ran through the process and followed their lead, I knew that we could be here."
Michigan State has been talking about the need to "find the inches" since falling five times by a total of 13 points - including a 23-20 defeat by Northwestern at Spartan Stadium - last season.
With "Finish" as its mantra, MSU reached its first objectives with room to spare by believing their own eyes when it came to player evaluation, and will continue to do so as it pursues its remaining goals. The Spartans don't have to beat the Golden Gophers to play in the league final against Ohio State or even reach double-digit wins for the third-time in four seasons.
However, by improving to 11-1, MSU will increase its chances of getting tabbed for one of the elite bowl games for the first time since the BCS was established in 1998 in addition to making it to the Rose Bowl by defeating the Buckeyes.
"This football team has sort of risen from the ashes a little bit and sort of scrambled to the top," said head coach Mark Dantonio. "We've got some guys that didn't play much last year like Langford, like Connor Cook, for example, like (tight end) Josiah Price for example. Even some of our wide receivers didn't have the year they hoped to have last year.
"Defensively, we did. We knew right where we were at and they carried us the first couple games. Since then, our offense has flourished. We're playing well on special teams, as well. We keep getting better and better, and that's what's important in November (because) the stakes do continue to get higher. I feel like we're playing for a BCS game next week and we'll worry about the championship game the week after. There's no reason to play that game this week; we need to play Minnesota this week."
What's more, the Spartans have done it on their terms. They left Chicago with no doubts about where they stand, without having to root for Wisconsin to eliminate Minnesota in the 3:30 p.m. game to avoid what would have been a divisional title showdown next Saturday, without the anxiety of having to win-or-else.
"That's gratifying," Dantonio said. "I've always said it's about us, not them. I don't really want to back into any game - lose the last two games, or lose one and then have to win one.
"I want to go in and say, hey, we're the undisputed champions of this side of the conference and we'll play for the championship. We made that happen ourselves. Nobody really helped us get that done. We made it happen and there's something to be said about that."
Fifth-year senior offensive guard Dan France said the Spartans know better than to expect, or count on, anyone else for favors.
"I remember some of the fans were rooting for Michigan against Nebraska, and Coach D was like, `I hope none of you guys did that,'" France said. "I don't think any of us did because we'd never root for Michigan. If we kept winning, we control our own destiny, and that's what we did."
Michigan State didn't get an easy path even though Northwestern came into the game with a 0-6 conference record. Thanks to four non-conference wins, the Wildcats were fighting for their bowl life and took a 3-0 lead.
Langford wiped that out with a 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, en route to a 25-carry, 150-yard, two-TD game. Then, with just over four minutes remaining in the first half, Cook launched a third-and-5 pass toward Fowler up the left sideline and into a stiff breeze that caused it to be underthrown. Fowler plucked the ball off the defender's back and sprinted untouched the remaining 65 yards for the momentum-shifting score.
After giving up another field goal with 1:52 remaining, the defense shut the Wildcats out the rest of the way. Only 95 of Northwestern's 319 yards and seven of 19 first downs came after the break, while safety Kurtis Drummond ended two drives with a pair of interceptions and cornerback Darqueze Dennard picked off his fourth pass of the season and 10th of his career.
Cook provided some breathing room with a stealthy pair of play-action fakes - one into the line and another on an end-around - before throwing a 15-yard touchdown dart to Price late in the third quarter. And, Langford added the exclamation point, just as he did with backbreaking 40- and 37-yard scoring bursts in the previous two wins against Michigan and Nebraska, with another 37-yarder with 12:37 remaining.
With 1,076 yards behind him, it seems like such a long time and so much tumult has passed since Langford came to MSU in 2010 as a running back, switched to defensive back in '11, moved to wide receiver in '12, all the while contributing on special teams, before arriving as a once-doubted feature back he is today, with a Legends Division Championship cap on his head.
"A couple years ago I didn't have a key role, but I had roles," he said. "Now it's a bigger role, and I'm stepping into it to do whatever I have to do to help my team win.
"I love the hat, but hope we switch it out in a couple weeks."