Spartans Still See Room for Improvement Heading Into Big Ten Championship Game
Nov. 30, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The superlatives achieved and the milestones reached are what give Michigan State's season its rich texture. But the Spartans' flaws could be the source of newfound strength.
The 11th-ranked Spartans claimed their third 11-win record in four years by closing out the regular season with a 14-3 Senior Day victory against Minnesota on Saturday. The two-time Big Ten Legends Division Champions won eight conference games for the first time in school history and are unbeaten and untied in league play for the first time since 1966.
The senior class bumped its school-best win total up to 40 while MSU's nation-leading defense didn't allow a touchdown for the fifth time in the last six games and the sixth time this season.
Jeremy Langford, so unheralded upon returning to the offensive backfield after unremarkable stints on defense and with the receiving corps, joined the legendary Lorenzo White as the only Spartans to rush for 100 yards in seven consecutive games.
Nevertheless, Michigan State isn't planting any flags to measure of how high it has climbed over the course of 12 games.
With their first Rose Bowl bid since the 1987 season now within the Spartans' reach, they are gauging how much more efficient they'll become and how much further they'll be able to go if they continue to improve heading into next Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game against No. 3 Ohio State in Indianapolis.
If the less-than-perfect performance against the Golden Gophers showed anything, it's that Michigan State's best game - offensively and defensively, on special teams and coaching-wise - is not only still ahead of it, but achievable, according to resident wizened sage, Tyler Hoover, whose tenure as a player will fall just days shy of seven years when the Spartans play in their bowl game.
"That's from coming into the season thinking that the next game is our biggest game we can play, and I think we've done that really well the entire year," said the sixth-year senior defensive tackle. "It's the mindset, the hard work, it's the focus. Each week we've gotten a little better at studying and at practicing.
"We don't take any teams off; we don't take any weeks off. We've always wanted to peak at the end of the year."
Minnesota, a worthy eight-win team that remained in the Legends Division race until MSU eliminated it by beating Northwestern a week earlier, did the Spartans a favor by playing them so tough.
The Gophers dominated time-of-possession, 38:41 to 21:19, while converting 8 of 20 third downs against Michigan State's defense. Meantime, the Spartans failed to reach first-down yardage on any of its eighth third-down situations.
Michigan State won despite what probably wasn't "a championship performance from us ofensively," said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, because it did enough things well enough to win.
Langford rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Quarterback Connor Cook connected on just 10 of 20 passes for 143 yards and one interception, but one of those completions went for a 12-yard touchdown to tight end Josiah Price. The defense made up for giving up 100 rushing yards for only the second time this season by forcing three turnovers, including cornerback Trae Waynes' first two interceptions of the season.
The school completion record Cook set when he completed 15 of 16 passes earlier in the season against Illinois has less value to MSU going forward than his 50-percent accuracy against Minnesota.
"To win a game when you're 0-for-8 on third down shows you how good you can be," Cook said. "I wouldn't really say we took a step back today, because we won. If you lose, you probably took a step back, by now we're on to Ohio State and we're going to focus on them.
"There's much more room for improvement, especially in a game like today when you only score 14 points. The way we were moving the ball, you would think we would have scored a lot more. It was just stupid mental errors on my part and not putting us in the best situations - stuff I haven't been doing all year."
As the Buckeyes, who've been the subject of incessant calculations of what needs to transpire to get into the national championship game, struggled to a 42-41 victory at Michigan, the Spartans chewed on a healthy bite of humble pie for nourishment it can use in the Big Ten title game.
"You look at a game like this and you're like, `Dang, we could be a lot better," Cook said. "Our best offensive game is still yet to come, and hopefully we can get that this Saturday."
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi saw a positive in MSU's innovative ball-control defense in the fourth quarter. The Spartans sealed the win by forcing the Gophers to run nine minutes and 21 seconds off the clock during a 17-play, 77-yard drive that ended when Hoover stripped the ball out of quarterback Mitch Leidner's hands and Denzel Drone recovered at the Michigan State 14-yard line.
"They didn't get a whole lot per minute out there," Narduzzi said of Minnesota's time of possession. "It was a heckuva performance by them, guys making plays, three turnovers. We bowed up in the red zone, which is what you want out of a great defense - you can bend but don't break."
And there's no question in Narduzzi's mind over just how good this defense is, and still can be.
"With the senior leadership we have now it's been special," he said. "It's a great group and by far the best defense I've ever been a part of. I haven't been here long enough but it's got to rival the best defenses ever at Michigan State, forget the last seven years."
Even so, it's still not a finished product.
"At first, we came out pretty strong, but then we started to play down to what we shouldn't be a little bit," Waynes said. "I'm just glad we stuck it out and stayed strong and made a lot of stops when we needed to.
"Championship teams do what they're supposed to do all the time and when they're supposed to do it. We made some errors on our part, but that's something we can look at and correct for next week's game. Our best football is still to come and with two more games to go, it will be interesting to see what that is."