For the second time in the past three seasons, Michigan State is heading to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford each scored two touchdowns, and the Spartans defense again came up big as Michigan State clinched the Big Ten Legends division with a 30-6 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
Undefeated in the Big Ten, the Spartans clinched the outright Legends crown with one week to go. They will very likely be facing an undefeated Ohio State at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the Buckeyes also able to clinch their spot in the game on Saturday. Michigan State has not won the conference outright since 1987 and has never made an appearance in a BCS bowl under the current system.
Mark Dantonio talked about what the win meant after the game, per ESPN.com: "I'm happy to have the hat on and wear it for a couple of weeks and then turn it in."
Dantonio's squad will finally get a chance after its seventh straight victory. On a cold, windy afternoon at Ryan Field, the Spartans outgained Northwestern 464-319, held their opponents to just 4-of-15 on third downs and forced two second-half interceptions from quarterback Trevor Siemian. The game followed a blueprint of many other Spartans contests, with their defense suffocating the opposition and their offense making just enough plays to pull it out.
The offense came at a slow burn on Saturday. It failed to score in the first quarter as Northwestern pulled out to a 3-0 lead—a 22-yarder from Jeff Budzien that capped a 13-play, 75-yard jaunt down the field.
That first quarter would turn out to be the only victory for the Wildcats, who have now lost seven straight in Big Ten play.
Langford scored his first touchdown for MSU from 20 yards out with 8:22 remaining in the second quarter, finishing a drive in which he gained 69 of the Spartans' 80 yards. The junior back rushed for 150 yards on 25 carries, marking his sixth-straight 100-yard contest and second straight with 150 or more yards. While Langford got off to a slow start working as a primary back, he became Michigan State's second-straight 1,000-yard rusher.
Not to be outdone, Cook threw for a career-high 293 yards on 16-of-24 passing—despite the high winds in Evanston often altering pass trajectories. The Spartans signal-caller's first touchdown pass came on one of those knocked-down balls, but Bennie Fowler made a sensational grab off the back of a Northwestern defender for an 87-yard catch and run.
The longest play of Michigan State's season gave the club a 14-3 lead with 4:31 remaining in the second quarter. Budzien hit his second field goal of the day from 20 yards out to bring the Wildcats to 14-6 at the half, but it'd be the last time they would score.
Playing without quarterback Kain Colter, who left with an upper-body injury in the first quarter following a targeting hit from Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis, the Northwestern running game sputtered. Running backs Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy combined for just 42 yards on 19 carries, leaving Siemian to do far too much.
Siemian acquitted himself well and managed the game at first, but wound up with 227 yards on 43 attempts and those two picks.
With their defense ramping into high gear, the Spartans were free to do the same offensively. Their first drive of the second half finished with a Michael Geiger 37-yard field goal. Their second drive resulted in Cook's second touchdown pass, a 15-yard strike to Josiah Price with five minutes remaining in the third quarter to make it 23-6 in Michigan State's favor.
Langford finalized the score early in the fourth quarter after Siemian's second interception with a 37-yard touchdown run.
The Spartans can now look forward to their likely championship matchup with Ohio State. While Minnesota sits on the schedule next week, it's highly unlikely that Michigan State has a chance at the national title.
Northwestern, on the other hand, will look merely to avoid going winless in the Big Ten. Once ranked and considered a possible Rose Bowl contender, the Wildcats' season has quickly devolved into a nightmare, and perhaps the most disappointing of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure.
Jeremy Langford (RB, Michigan State): A
Langford has been the Spartans' rock all season, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he again came through despite less-than-ideal conditions. Mark Dantonio has become the type of coach willing to grind his workhorse running back down to the bone, and only a special type of player can handle that workload.
Langford has proven a worthy successor to Le'Veon Bell. The bruising junior again acquitted himself well on Saturday, running with a purpose and extending drives at key periods for the Spartans. Running the ball has always been a coach's go-to move in blustery conditions, and Langford's presence made that all the easier for Dantonio.
While he doesn't get the recognition he arguably deserves, Langford's consistency will allow him and his team a chance to prove themselves on a proper stage in the conference title game.
Trevor Siemian (QB, Northwestern): C
Siemian regularly attempts more passes than Colter and gets a steady number of snaps. His presence was nothing new on the field. This wasn't a typical "backup" coming in for your prototypical "starter" or anything of the like; Northwestern's quarterback hierarchy is murky at best.
But Colter's injury did provide Siemian an attempt at being the unquestioned top guy. The results were mixed, to say the least.
While Siemian fared better than his other outing this season sans Colter—a Week 8 loss to Minnesota—it's safe to say Pat Fitzgerald was hoping for more. With the wind blowing passes all over the place, the Wildcats were consigned to short passes that make it difficult to come from behind.
Siemian completed some of those, but the offense just wasn't the same without Colter.
Connor Cook (QB, Michigan State): A
Perhaps the Spartans should hope for unfavorable weather conditions every week. Cook has spent his season being your typical "game manager," rarely making big plays but never single-handedly costing his team a contest. In many ways, one could draw parallels to Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Spartans look for Cook to hand the ball off regularly, avoid major screwups and help the defense control the pacing of the game.
This time around, Cook flipped the script and arguably had his best performance of the season despite the wind and cold. He flashed enough arm strength to cut through the wind, poise to avoid oncoming rushes and, most importantly, accuracy on his throws.
It's hard to get too excited because Northwestern was struggling so mightily coming into this week. But with Ohio State likely coming down the pike, every little improvement for this Spartans offense counts. If this week was a sign of things to come for Cook, they might wind up heading to Pasadena.
Tony Jones (WR, Northwestern): B-
Quad injury, shmad injury.
Jones came into this week dealing with an ailing quad that's left him obviously limited over the past couple weeks. After missing the better part of two games against Nebraska and Iowa, he returned to the lineup, only to struggle to create separation once he caught the ball. Jones' 10 catches went for a rather nondescript 90 yards.
While his final line (seven catches for 59) wasn't elite again, Jones was consistently the best Northwestern receiver on a day the Wildcats were forced to throw. Not much went right for the Wildcats; Jones was merely less "not-right" than his teammates.
Michigan State closes out its regular season with a game against Minnesota at Spartan Stadium. The Wildcats will attempt to avoid finishing their Big Ten regular season without a win when they head to Memorial Stadium to take on Illinois.
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