Michigan State finding top gear at most important time of year

Dantonio: 'I just want to win'

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio analyzes his team's 55-16 victory over Penn State and how it felt to be on the sideline for the game.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's not often you see a quarterback ask for more crowd noise near the goal line.

That's precisely what Michigan State's Connor Cook did after his team recovered a fumbled kickoff at the Penn State 9-yard line on Saturday. Cook raised both arms, demanding increased volume from the home fans. They might not have noticed what he knew: Center Jack Allen was lined up in the backfield as a running back.

"I was trying to have fun with it," Cook said later. "I knew Jack was going to score."

Yes, he did. Allen showed nimble feet for a 296-pounder as he took a handoff and scored the No. 5 Spartans' final and funniest touchdown in a 55-16 pounding of the Nittany Lions.

The victory pushed Michigan State into the Big Ten title game next week against No. 4 Iowa in a virtual College Football Playoff play-in. That touchdown sequence also showed something important: This team is playing with as much swagger as it has all season. And that makes it dangerous.

"We're playing our best football down the stretch," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "If you look and compare us to last year's Big Ten champions, that's what they were able to do."

Dantonio's not-so-thinly veiled reference to Ohio State's 2014 national championship run makes clear how much confidence he and his players will carry into Indianapolis and perhaps beyond. It's a remarkable turnaround for a team whose season looked on the brink after a loss at Nebraska three weeks ago.

It turns out a loss might have been just what the Spartans needed. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel recalled a conversation with star defensive end Shilique Calhoun right after the Nebraska game in which the two talked about a "mindset change" on defense. They needed to re-embrace the "Spartan Dawg" mentality and act like the most dominating defense in the country. That showed up last week, when Michigan State held Ohio State to only 132 total yards in a 17-14 road upset, and it surfaced again Saturday when the Spartans forced four Penn State turnovers and scored two defensive touchdowns.

The Nebraska loss also placed a program that fuels itself on proving doubters wrong back in a familiar spot.

"We love to be in that position," tight end Josiah Price said. "We fed off that a little bit."

Even if Michigan State hadn't suffered a defeat, it might have gotten here just because of better health. Allen fittingly got the carry on the final snap of his last home game. The senior is an All-American-caliber center who had to slide out to left tackle earlier this season as the Spartans dealt with a rash of injuries on the offensive line. The line has finally returned to full strength and is living up to its potential in mauling its past two opponents.

"We're starting to jell a little bit up front," Allen said. "Things are coming together."

That was evident against Penn State, which came into Saturday atop the Big Ten in sacks. The Nittany Lions' defense took a hit when national sacks leader Carl Nassib had to leave after two plays because of a lingering injury for the second consecutive week. Still, PSU's talented defensive front put almost no pressure on Cook.

"I was never touched," Cook said.

That was important, because Cook returned to the lineup after missing the Ohio State game because of an injury to his throwing shoulder. Cook wasn't sure he would play against Penn State until he went through warm-ups without any major issues. He immediately resumed his efficient ways, throwing for 248 yards and three touchdowns.

"It was the same old Connor Cook," receiver R.J. Shelton said. "He makes us whole again."

After its most complete performance of the year in the regular-season finale, Michigan State rolls into Indianapolis next week against 12-0 Iowa, a team that shares many of the same traits.

"I visited there twice during my recruiting, so I kind of know what they're all about," Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough said. "Both of our offenses try to beat down the other team the whole 60 minutes, so on the defensive side of the ball, you've got to fight against that."

Saturday couldn't have gone much better for Spartans fans. Not only did their team clinch a division title, Michigan got blown out by Ohio State down the road in Ann Arbor in what amounted to an undercard matchup. State supremacy again resides in East Lansing.

But what happens next week in Indianapolis is even more important. The winner of that game is probably going to the playoff: "If we take care of business," Bullough said, "I don't think there's any way they can keep us out."

If the Spartans do beat the Hawkeyes and get in, watch out. With the way they're playing now, they won't need to ask for noise. They could make plenty of their own.