INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Dantonio told his team they would be “the ones” at his team banquet last offseason, where the book officially closed on a frustrating 7-6 season.
What MSU’s seventh-year head coach implied was that the 2013 Spartans would be the ones to bring MSU’s first Rose Bowl bid since 1988.
At Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night, Dantonio’s 10th-ranked Spartans were the ones – the ones with roses clenched between their teeth. They were the ones, spattered in confetti, hoisting the trophy and breaking in their brand new championship hats.
They were the ones that validated Dantonio’s proclamation with a 34-24 upset of No. 2 Ohio State, earning the program’s first Big Ten title since 2010, and first outright crown since 1987.
“I live for my players,” Dantonio said. “Our players, I’m so happy for them. They made a lifetime moment tonight for all of us – all of us had that moment, our fans, our players.
“It will be a moment that we’ll never forget.”
The Spartans (12-1 overall) handed Urban Meyer his first loss since taking over as head coach of the Buckeyes (12-1). They also completed their revenge checklist by downing the five Big Ten teams they lost to by 13 total points in 2012 – winning each time by double digits this season.
MSU’s longstanding goal of returning to Pasadena, Calif., has been realized. In the fifth Rose Bowl appearance in school history – and 100th anniversary of the game – the Spartans will take on Pac-12 champion Stanford on Jan. 1.
Dantonio notched the biggest win of his career, MSU achieved its first-ever 12-win season and sophomore quarterback Connor Cook set a career-high with 304 passing yards and three touchdowns en route to MVP honors.
“Emotionally it’s surreal,” Cook said. “It’s things you dream about as a kid.”
Freshman kicker Michael Geiger got the Spartans on the board first with a 40-yard field goal on the first possession of the game. In the second quarter, Cook put a pair of throws on the money for touchdowns, to build a 17-0 lead. The first was a 72-yard catch-and-run to junior receiver Keith Mumphery, while the second was from 33 yards out to junior wideout Tony Lippett.
Ohio State’s dynamic quarterback, Braxton Miller, found his footing in the second and third quarters, and to no surprise, the Buckeyes made it a game once Miller got comfortable by ripping off 24 unanswered points to take the lead. The Miller-led resurgence also revitalized the Indianapolis crowd, the majority of which were sporting Ohio State colors.
Geiger’s 44-yard field goal barely got past the crossbar, but it dropped in for three points to make it 27-24. On the following kickoff, Dantonio turned to senior kicker Kevin Muma to attempt a surprise onside kick. It nearly was recovered by senior cornerback Darquze Dennard, but instead Ohio State took over with a short field on its own 41.
Two of the Spartans’ most reliable young players the past few weeks, junior running back Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman tight end Josiah Price, added the final points for MSU with fourth-quarter touchdowns. Price snagged a 9-yard touchdown run on a well-designed throwback play, while Langford – who took a beating against the Buckeyes – provided another late-game dagger of a run, this time from 26 yards out. Langford recorded his eighth consecutive 100-yard rushing game, notching 128 yards against the Buckeyes.
The play of the game came when Ohio State, trailing by three with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, was stuffed on fourth-and-2 by senior linebacker Denicos Allen. Miller took the defining snap and rolled to his right, something MSU players and coaches expected, and Allen was the first to meet him on the ground on MSU’s 39. Miller gained one, but the Spartans thwarted Ohio State’s offense and slammed the door shut on the possibility of a comeback.
The Buckeyes did manage to gain 374 yards against MSU’s vaunted defense, but key plays such as Allen’s stop and allowing just one of 10 third-down conversions helped propel the victory.
“That’s something we focus on,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said. “We’ve done it all year, whether we’re playing Ohio State, whoever it is. (Third down is) something we focus on. … They’re a great offense. Obviously they did some things against us, but we’ve had a pretty good year, too.”
MSU once again used a late breakaway run from Langford to seal the win with a double-digit margin. By the time Miller and Co. returned to the field, the Buckeyes were down 10 points and had just two minutes left on the clock.
The second leg of Dantonio’s three-tiered goal system is complete. The first was making it back to Indianapolis, the site of a heartbreaking late-game mistake in the 2011 conference championship game. The second was to win at Lucas Oil Stadium. Now that they’ve made the long-awaited Rose Bowl return possible, MSU’s focus shifts to winning the game – goal No. 3 on the list.
“It’s just nice to make people happy I guess, simply put as that,” Dantonio said. “I’m really excited for our football team. I’m excited for our players because they put in so much work. I’m excited for Mark Hollis. When he became the athletic director, he said he would not stop until we put our feet in the middle of those roses at the Rose Bowl. Now we’ve accomplished that. We’ll be there.”
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