Ohio State's season was on the line, and Mark Dantonio wanted to be the one to take it away.
Late in the fourth quarter Saturday, Spartans running back LJ Scott brought his team within a point of the visiting Buckeyes, 17-16, with a touchdown run that capped a stellar drive that looked mighty similar to the one that won last year's Big Ten Championship Game. That's when Dantonio decided he wanted the win on a cold, windy, sometimes-snowy afternoon in East Lansing, sending his offense back out onto the field for the two-point conversion try. A try is all the Spartans got, though, with Tyler O'Connor throwing into double coverage and his pass picked off in the end zone.
Ohio State ate up some clock, and even though it got the ball back, Michigan State turned it over again, allowing the Buckeyes to walk out of Spartan Stadium 17-16 winners.
The victory was no easy feat for the second-ranked Buckeyes, who are now 10-1 and will face off against rival Michigan in a titanic edition of The Game a week from now where a win could mean a ticket to the College Football Playoff.
It was just last season when Michigan State ended Ohio State's Playoff dreams, earning an ugly win in Columbus on a walk-off field goal that effectively knocked the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten title race and out of contention for a spot in the sport's final four. This one looked like it could follow a similar script from the start, with Scott taking a pass from O'Connor and dashing 64 yards to the end zone on the game's second play from scrimmage.
Later in the first quarter, J.T. Barrett evened things up by capping a short-field drive with a 24-yard touchdown pass lofted into the hands of Curtis Samuel. In the second quarter, though, Scott ripped off a 61-yard rush on a drive that ended in a Michigan State field goal. Ohio State answered with its own three-point kick on the following possession. An O'Connor interception and a Mike Weber fumble canceled each other out before halftime.
Both defenses came to play in the second half, something expected from the Buckeyes, who boast one of the nation's best units, but not so much from the Spartans, who have experienced defensive-line troubles all season and were without arguably their best defensive player in Malik McDowell. But punts were the only result over the first nine drives of the second half, the lone exception in there being an Ohio State touchdown drive on which Weber starred with a 52-yard rush and ended three plays later with a scoring carry.
The Buckeyes' lead stood at 17-10 until the Spartans rode Scott on a lengthy drive that gobbled up almost five minutes. Scott carried the ball eight straight times, starting with a 26-yard run to the Ohio State 30-yard line and ending with a one-yard touchdown rush that seemingly would tie the game. But Dantonio followed with his decision to go for two, and O'Connor's pass found the hands of a Buckeye defender.
Barrett managed to chew up two and a half more minutes before Ohio State was forced to punt. But after getting the ball back, disaster struck for the Michigan State quarterback, O'Connor getting sacked and fumbling on the first play of the new drive. O'Connor fell on his own dropped ball, but he pitched an interception to Gareon Conley on the next play, the 17th pick of the season for the Buckeyes' defense.
Ohio State gained just 310 total yards in this one, Michigan State turning in a strong defensive effort. The Buckeyes were stellar defensively, too, limiting the Spartans to just 334 total yards. Between Michigan State's two touchdown drives — one to start the game and one at the end of the fourth quarter — the Spartans kicked a field goal, threw an interception and punted seven times.
The day was dominated, at least offensively, by the two running backs. Scott was sensational, carrying the ball 19 times for 160 yards and a touchdown and catching two passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. Plus, he did all the heavy lifting on Michigan State's final touchdown drive, with eight carries for 56 yards on that possession alone. Meanwhile, Weber was great for Ohio State, carrying the ball 14 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. Barrett also had a big day running the ball, gaining 105 yards on 24 carries.
Barrett completed just 10 passes for 86 yards, while O'Connor completed just six passes and threw a pair of interceptions, plus the pick on the two-point conversion attempt.
The win didn't come perhaps as easily as some might have thought it would have for the Buckeyes, but it was a win nonetheless in another entertaining entry into this rivalry. Of course, the rivalry now on everyone's minds is The Game, which comes next week and could be the determining factor in whether Ohio State or Michigan makes it to the College Football Playoff. Even with a win in that contest, the Buckeyes might still miss out on the Big Ten title game. But their resume would be so stellar, the lack of competing for a conference championship might not matter. Ohio State stands at 10-1 on the season and 7-1 in the Big Ten after Saturday's victory in East Lansing.
Despite the effort, this was yet another loss for the Spartans, who now sit at 3-8 overall and 1-7 in conference play. A disastrous season that started with hopes of another run to the Playoff will end without a bowl appearance for the first time under Dantonio. The regular-season finale comes next weekend against Penn State, and it'll be another chance for Michigan State to play spoiler for a Nittany Lions team with its eyes on a Playoff berth.