The Michigan State football team has been best known for its impressive defense in recent years. Last season, the Spartans ranked second in the nation in total defense and third in scoring defense during a campaign that saw MSU win the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl.
This year, it’s much of the same. Michigan State is No. 5 nationally in total defense, allowing 279.4 yards per game. The Spartans also boast a top-25 scoring defense, allowing 20.3 points per game, good for 22nd among Football Bowl Subdivision squads.
Yet there is one big difference with this edition of the Spartans. Michigan State now has a potent offense. Led by junior quarterback Connor Cook, MSU averages 45.5 points per game, good for fifth in the nation. The Spartans are also tops in the Big Ten in total offense, boasting the No. 9 attack nationally with 515.3 yards per game.
For comparison’s sake, Michigan State was No. 81 in total offense (385.5 yards per game) and 63rd in scoring offense (29.4 points per game).
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell cited consistency as the biggest reason for Michigan State’s offensive improvement.
“They’re going to be tough,” Fickell said. “They’re going to be physical. They’re going to do the things that they do. They’re going to run the football. They’re going to keep it balanced. I think all in all the balance is what they do. The consistency of what they do and the confidence they have in their quarterback to do the right thing adds to success for them.”
The Spartans have hurt opponents on the ground and through the air this season. Michigan State is remarkably balanced, averaging 254.9 yards per game rushing and 260.4 passing. Cook is a key reason for the increased balance. While last season’s Spartans were a rush-heavy team, Cook has now emerged as more of a threat leading the aerial attack. He ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency and has been sacked just five times.
Cook earned MVP honors in the Big Ten Championship Game last year and has continued an upward trajectory. He threw for a 304 yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes in Indianapolis.
“Going into the game last year, Connor Cook didn’t really put anything exceptional on film, then when he played us he had a really good game and he’s kept improving since then,” OSU senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “I think he’s a much better quarterback than when I was watching him on film last year. I think he’s a good pro-style quarterback, so you have to put pressure on him, make him make bad decisions. If we can do that, I think our secondary and linebackers can take the ball away.”
Cook’s top target this season has been Tony Lippett. The senior has caught 42 passes this season for 889 yards, averaging 21.2 yards per receptions. He has also hauled in a Big Ten-best nine touchdowns.
“On third downs, you see Connor throw the ball to him knowing whether he’s single covered or double covered that he’s going to go get the ball,” Fickell said. “I think he’s a big part of the success that they’ve had. … They put him in those situations and they give him those opportunities and he’s been really successful at it.”
Like many other good offenses, the Spartans have a go-to running back as well. Senior Jeremy Langford has rushed for 841 yards this season. That’s an average per game of 105.1 yards, and he has scored 10 touchdowns.
Michigan State’s running game leads to passing success, as well.
“If you can’t stop the run, then they have a field day on you with throwing the ball and running when they feel like it,” Bennett said. “This is one of those teams like Wisconsin, if you shut down the run game and make them throw the ball, it’s a much easier game than trying to figure out what they’re doing the whole game.”
While Michigan State has clearly improved on offense, the same can be said for the Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes, who gave up several big plays to the Spartans in the Big Ten title game last season, have allowed a mere 19.9 points (No. 17 nationally) and 300.0 yards (No. 8 nationally) per game this season.
The revamped defensive has made strides this season, and members of the unit were confident heading into this weekend’s showdown.
“(Playing fast is) the key to everything,” Grant said. “For a defense, if you’re able to play fast, you’ll be able to execute and get to the ball when you need to.”