Note: Michigan State has canceled all sports activities as our community deals with the COVID-19 crisis. While we at The State News encourage everyone to socially distance and wash hands often, to help prevent the spread of this deadly disease, we want to look back at some great moments in Michigan State sports history. Soon, we’ll be back to a world with sports, but for now, the past will have to do.
Today, we’ll be looking at the 2015 regular season football game between Ohio State and Michigan State.
We’ll be compiling these moments into a bracket with the MSU community voting on the best one, starting on April 1, via Twitter.
Date: Nov. 21, 2015
Venue: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Matchup: No. 9 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0)
The background: The 2015 regular season game between MSU and Ohio State was arguably the highest point in a short-lived but high-flying rivalry between both teams. Since 2011, the Spartans and Buckeyes were 2-2 against each other and the championship implications had never been higher than they were in this game.
In the first ten games of their national title defense, Ohio State crushed nearly every opponent in the regular season with an explosive offense led by quarterback J.T. Barrett and Heisman candidate running back Ezekiel Elliott. Defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Vonn Bell headlined a defense that improved week by week to hold opponents to a staggering 13.8 points per game going into their matchup with MSU.
By beating the Spartans, Ohio State would only have to defeat rival Michigan to win the Big Ten East division and advance to the Big Ten Championship. Winning the Big Ten would all but guarantee that Ohio State would make their second straight appearance in the College Football Playoff to defend their title.
The stakes were even higher for MSU. With already one loss at the hands of Nebraska, falling to the Buckeyes would eliminate the Spartans from CFP contention and any shot at a national title. But a win would put Michigan State firmly in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten East, with only a mediocre Penn State team in their way. If the Spartans were ever going to make a push to win the Big Ten and qualify for the CFP, they had to come out of Columbus victorious.
The game: I was born and raised in mid-Michigan but grew up a die-hard Buckeyes fan. My father grew up outside Toledo, graduated from Ohio State in the early 1980s and, like many fathers, instilled a severe amount of pride for the university in his spouse and children.
Of course, it should go without saying that this pride was never more apparent than in the fall.
Ohio State football was, for better or for worse, a religious experience in my household. My mother superstitiously hoarded “lucky” mugs reserved specifically for game day, my dad would (and still does) hang an obnoxiously large and faded Block O flag over our garage door and the sounds of top-tier Big Ten football boomed through our house every Saturday.
Experiences like those game days taught me to love the game and carried me all the way to that snowy Saturday afternoon in late November. The anticipation that week had been agonizing as all of my friends with an allegiance to Michigan State tried to convince me that this Spartan team was one of the greatest in a generation filled with outstanding teams. In response, I’d stubbornly shake my head and guarantee an Ohio State win.
Michigan State was 9-1 but to say I doubted them was an understatement. The Spartans had lost to an inferior Nebraska team, miraculously but barely beat Michigan and, most importantly in my mind, were now going up against the Buckeyes without their starting quarterback Connor Cook.
Let me be a little more clear about what I thought. The Spartans were going up against the 10-0, reigning national champion and winners of 23-straight Buckeyes, loaded with future NFL talent on Senior Day in Ohio Stadium.
So, yeah, I wasn’t all too worried.
Until that opening drive. Barrett suddenly had nowhere to run or hide as routine throws suddenly looked impossible as a swarm of white MSU jerseys set the tone early. While no single performance by a Spartan defender truly comes to mind, it seemed that someone new stepped up for every big play.
For instance: Montae Nicholson stuffing Barrett on third and short in the first quarter. Darian Hicks cornering an explosive Curtis Samuel to kill a crucial Buckeye drive late in the second half. Riley Bullough corralling Braxton Miller to force a punt out of Ohio State's end zone with less than five minutes left in the game. Most have forgotten about these critical plays but without them, I wouldn't have written about this game in this context.
Quarterback Tyler O’ Connor did not put up impressive numbers that rainy day in Columbus but he scrambled and connected with wide receiver Aaron Burbridge for first downs when it mattered most in a game that saw both teams struggle for points. Running backs L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes combined for 123 yards, 90 more than prized Buckeye running back Elliott's season-low performance.
It was a total team effort in the face of a seemingly insurmountable opponent, the most complete performance all season. An unforgettable game-all it needed was an unforgettable moment.
With the game deadlocked at 14-14 and a little over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, O' Connor and Scott led the Spartans from midfield in a slow, grinding drive. Around the two minute warning, it became clear that Michigan State intended to win it in the final seconds off the leg of kicker Michael Geiger, an Ohio native.
With three seconds left in the game, Geiger kicked a 41-yard field goal from the right hash. It was a long, looping ball that squeezed past the left upright and into the net, far from a perfect kick. Geiger said afterwards that he didn't even see the final trajectory of his ball.
"I don’t even know if I saw it go through the uprights, because by then I was gone,” he said. “I was running. I didn’t want to get tackled or any of that."
Whether or not Geiger saw it, the kick was enough. The Spartans had secured the 17-14 upset and a celebration was in order.
Geiger's celebration? Windmilling his right arm up and around his side in a dead sprint down the field.
"I don't know where it came from," Geiger said. "It was instinctual."
On that day, I was disappointed and yet, I couldn't help but enjoy the raw joy that Geiger's impromptu gesture brought. It was everything college football was about — triumph, struggle, skill — in the silliest and most energetic way possible. I started looking at the game differently that day and Geiger played a huge part in that.
Long live The Windmill.
The aftermath: 2015 was one of the most illustrious years in Michigan State football history so we’re bound to see more from that team on this list. Following their victory in Columbus, the Spartans returned home to East Lansing and routed Penn State 55-16 to win their second Big Ten East title in three years.
Michigan State then traveled to Indianapolis a week later to face the No. 4 Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship. After three hard-fought and physical quarters, the Spartans trailed 13-9 and regained possession on their 18 yard line with 9:31 remaining in the game.
From there, Michigan State orchestrated a back-breaking nine-minute, 22-play long drive that spanned 82 total yards, culminating in a one yard L.J. Scott touchdown run to give the Spartans a 16-13 lead with 27 seconds left in the game. Iowa failed to score in those final seconds and the Spartans were outright Big Ten Champions for the third and final time in Mark Dantonio’s tenure as head coach.
Michigan State was selected as the third seed in the 2015 College Football Playoff but fell 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl to an Alabama team that would later win the National Championship.