Three games after its season looked over following an upset loss to Nebraska, Michigan State is headed to the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Spartans captured the Big Ten East Division crown Saturday with a 55-16 beatdown of Penn State, rendering Ohio State's win over Michigan earlier in the day meaningless when it came to determining the division. Michigan State will face undefeated Iowa next weekend in Indianapolis to determine the conference champ in what will likely be a de facto play-in game for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Connor Cook returned after missing last weekend's win over Ohio State with an injury, and he got things started early. After Michigan State defensive back Arjen Colquhoun intercepted Christian Hackenberg in the end zone, Cook led an 80-yard scoring drive, hitting R.J. Shelton for a 29-yard touchdown pass.
Later in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions had a lengthy drive of their own, reaching the one-yard line, but they had to settle for a field goal when the Spartans defense showed some of the same strong play that allowed just 132 total yards in the win over Ohio State.
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In the second quarter, Cook took advantage of a short field, leading another touchdown drive on which Gerald Holmes starred. The running back took a Cook pass 24 yards then ran four straight times for 23 yards, the final a six-yard scoring tote.
Then the defense showed up again, Riley Bullough forcing a fumble that was picked up and returned 77 yards for a touchdown by Demetrious Cox.
Hackenberg threw a touchdown pass to Chris Godwin to make it a 20-10 game at the half.
Michigan State wideout Aaron Burbridge started the second half in jaw-dropping fashion, making a terrific catch before breaking a tackle, spinning around a pair of defenders and leaping past another to dive into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown to put the Spartans ahead, 27-10.
On the next Spartans drive, LJ Scott and Cook did the damage, going 69 yards in 12 plays. Cook had a 16-yard completion to Josiah Price for a third-down conversion that gave Michigan State goal to go. Two plays after that, Cook did a double play fake, hitting a wide-open Price for a six-yard touchdown to make it a 34-10 game.
Penn State answered with a huge 77-yard pass play fro Hackenberg to Saeed Blacknall to get the Lions in a goal-to-go situation. After a ton of failed tries and penalties — Penn State ran nine plays with goal to go — Hackenberg found Godwin for a touchdown on fourth and goal, Michigan State’s lead trimmed to 34-16 after a failed two-point-conversion try.
Penn State tried an onside kick from there, which didn’t work, and Cook and the Spartans made quick work of the short field, going on a 44-yard drive that ended in an Scott touchdown run to make it 41-16.
Things got real crazy as the blowout reached epic proportions. Spartans defensive lineman Malik McDowell came down with a tipped pass and returned the Hackenberg interception for a touchdown. That was followed moments later when, after a Penn State fumble, Michigan State center Jakc Allen was handed the ball at the nine-yard line and ran in for a touchdown, stiff-arming a defender on the way.
The Spartans didn't have a very large advantage in total yardage, out-gaining the Lions just 436-418. But it was the four Penn State turnovers that made the deficit so large. Either directly or indirectly, each one led to a Michigan State touchdown.
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Cook finished completing 19 of his 26 passing attempts for 248 yards and three touchdowns. Holmes and Scott combined for 105 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Hackenberg finished completing 22 of his 39 passing attempts for 257 yards and two touchdowns, plus two interceptions. Saquon Barkley rushed for 103 yards.
The Spartans — who moved to 11-1 with the win — scored a mighty impressive victory and a whole mess of style points, something that should impact their view in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Currently the No. 5 team in the country, Michigan State will face current No. 4 Iowa next weekend in the Big Ten title game. A win there over an undefeated top-five team could give Michigan State the best resume in the country. Whether that would translate to a No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, who knows?
Penn State finished the season at 7-5 and a 4-4 conference record. The Lions will await their bowl destination.