By Todd Jones
EAST LANSING, MICH.: To appreciate Michigan State’s second appearance in the Big Ten championship game in three years, flash back to where the Spartans were when October began.
Michigan State was unranked and 3-1 after losing 17-13 at Notre Dame, and the offensive ineptitude in that loss was similar to what the Spartans experienced a year earlier, when they lost half their 12 regular-season games.
A final 7-6 record in 2012 occurred despite Michigan State’s defense finishing the season ranked No. 4 in the nation. Offensive struggles contributed to five of the losses being by a combined 13 points.
Not wanting to relive that misery, senior linebacker Max Bullough pulled aside quarterback Connor Cook after practice Oct. 3. The Spartans were two days away from their Big Ten opener at Iowa.
Bullough, a two-time team captain, delivered a frank message to Cook, a sophomore from Walsh Jesuit and Hinckley, Ohio, who was preparing for his third career start.
“You know what? We’ve got to score points,” Bullough told him.
The short one-on-one talk ended with Cook telling Bullough: “Don’t you worry. I’ll handle everything. I’ll get the guys going.”
Cook made good on his word. His improvement, coupled with the emergence of running back Jeremy Langford, produced enough offense for the Spartans (11-1) to go undefeated in league play (8-0) for the first time since 1966 and earn a date against second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday.
Michigan State’s defense, which has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for 12 consecutive weeks, is the team’s trademark and the overriding reason why the Spartans can earn their first outright Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth in 26 years with a victory over OSU (12-0).
Still, the Spartans wouldn’t be in Indianapolis on Saturday if the other side of the ball hadn’t improved enough for coach Mark Dantonio to say his team now has “an opportunistic offense.”
Michigan State ranks only 84th in total offense, averaging 380.2 yards per game, but those numbers are dragged down by four early nonconference games.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were through the month of September,” said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, who shares his duties with former OSU assistant coach Jim Bollman.
The Spartans scored only two offensive touchdowns — two fewer than the defense scored — when they began the season with wins over Western Michigan and South Florida. Dantonio tried three quarterbacks in those games and said one needed to “seize the opportunity.”
A cocksure attitude led to Cook wresting the job from starter Andrew Maxwell, a fifth-year senior, and redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor in the season’s third game.
“He’s sort of footloose and fancy-free,” Warner said of Cook. “He’s struggled at times, but he’s the sort of guy who can put a bad play behind him and make a good play to make up for it. He’s done it throughout the season.”
Cook’s improvement began after Bullough’s talk ahead of a 26-14 win at Iowa.
In eight Big Ten games, Cook completed 134 of 223 passes for 1,708 yards and 12 touchdowns, with four interceptions. The Spartans averaged 29.8 points in conference play.
“I’ve been pretty smart and not made stupid decisions,” Cook said.
Aiding Cook has been another first-year starter: Langford at tailback. The junior ran for more than 100 yards in each of the past seven games and has totaled 1,210 this season. His 17 touchdowns — all but one rushing — lead the Big Ten.
Langford ran for 134 yards on 21 carries and one score in a 14-3 win over Minnesota on Saturday, but the rest of Michigan State’s offense struggled in the regular-season finale.
The Spartans went 0 for 8 on third downs. Cook completed only 10 of 20 passes for 143 yards and one score. He threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sacked twice.
Warner said the offense must play better against Ohio State.
His quarterback agreed.
“Our best offensive game is yet to come,” Cook said. “Hopefully, we’ll get that this Saturday.”