MSU fans cheered. Wisconsin fans cheered.
Two years ago, I was at Lucas Oil Stadium, near the end zone that featured the Wisconsin fans. The punt went up, the punter went down. Wisconsin fans cheered as a flag came out.
On the other side of the field, much of the MSU section didn't see the flag, cheering as Keshawn Martin took the punt return down the sideline. A number of Wisconsin players didn't bother pursuing Martin. They knew the game was over.
It was a good call by the officials. It's a tough call to make in that situation, but it was a good call. It's not Isaiah Lewis's fault. The Indianapolis native wasn't pushed into the punter. He was partially blocked, but it was him going all-out for the block, which Mark Dantonio had ordered.
An anti-climactic finish to what I still maintain was one of the best-played football games I've ever seen.
There was no celebration from Kirk Cousins during that game. Only focus. Not on the fourth-down touchdown pass. Not on "Awareness 99." In the end, the face of Michigan State University fell short. Fell short of returning to the Rose Bowl and reuniting with the security guard who wouldn't let him into the stadium the previous summer.
He was right. It wasn't fair that the Spartans fell out of BCS-eligiblity and a team that MSU defeated went instead. MSU was passed over by the BCS in 1999. It was passed over in 2010 by a team that would have the season vacated. It was penalized for winning its division in 2011.
For the final time, MSU has an opportunity to reach the soon-to-be-dead BCS.
I wasn't alive the last time MSU reached the Rose Bowl. This will be the 100th Rose Bowl Game. It will also be the final version in the form that we know it.
"With the amount of turnover that's taken place at this position the past few years, there's a perception this is not necessarily a great position, a graveyard of coaches. What are your thoughts on that? How do you go about changing that perception?"
"See all these people here with all these cameras? I would say that perception is inaccurate. This is a tough job. Every job in America is a tough job. … Everybody goes through problems. It's how you handle those problems and problem solve that will make the difference. I didn't come here to be dragged into the graveyard. I came here to win, to win championships. I know, I've been around football long enough, how to do that. I feel very, very confident because I know that our players will play."
At Mark Dantonio's introductory press conference on Nov. 27, 2006, he didn't once say the words "Rose Bowl." Only one person at that press conference did. Tom Izzo.
Saturday's game is for Kirk Cousins. It's for Tom Izzo. It's for Mark Dantonio. It's for Dallas Thornton. It's for Mark Hollis, who has been prepared for "roses on our cleats." It's for every Spartan who has followed the past 25 years. Every underdog.
Since 1988, every Big Ten team has played in the Granddaddy Of Them All, except for Indiana, Minnesota and the Spartans. Oregon players didn't even want to go to the Rose Bowl this season. Saturday is a chance for MSU to take the step up from a good program to a great program and become more than just another Big Ten team.
Would MSU settle for a Rose Bowl appearance despite a loss in Indianapolis? You're damn right you would. For all the times MSU has been screwed over before, you take what you can get. But getting there after a win would be something more.
It would be a championship.
It has been 1,105 days since Urban Meyer last spoke to a team following a defeat. He's 24-0 at Ohio State. Had the Buckeyes self-imposed a bowl ban following the tattoo and memorabilia scandal that led to his arrival, they would have played for the national championship last season. Instead, they're 24 wins in and still haven't played anyone truly noteworthy. But that first marquee win would be good enough to get a shot at a national championship.
One of Meyer's closest chances to a loss came in East Lansing last season. Ohio State came away with a 17-16 win, which Meyer would later say became the true turning point for his program, when everyone would finally start to buy in. Since then, only an overtime game at Wisconsin and a two-point conversion interception in Ann Arbor last week were closer to a loss. The 17 points remain the fewest Ohio State has scored under Meyer.
Behind Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, both of whom could be Heisman candidates if not for injuries/suspension, Ohio State has the No. 1 rushing attack in the country at more than seven yards per carry. In the passing game, Miller led the Big Ten in TD/INT ratio among starters. In terms of his running styles, he's more shifty and breaks more tackles than guys like Denard Robinson and Taylor Martinez, who rely on speed. MSU has gone live in tackling the quarterback this week, in order to prepare for Miller.
Defensively, Ohio State had to replace its entire defensive line and two linebackers from last season. There's talent all over the defense, but it has been inconsistent, allowing 35 points to Illinois and 41 to Michigan. The Buckeyes do a tremendous job of getting to the quarterback, which helps make up for other problems.
It's the Big Ten's top offense against its best defense. College Gameday is in town, and the whole country will be watching to see if the Spartans bring more chaos to the final BCS national championship picture.
By the numbers
7.05 - Rushing yards per carry for Ohio State, No. 1 nationally.
2.23 - Rushing yards per carry allowed by MSU, the lowest nationally since 2009 Texas.
64.7 - Rushing yards per game allowed by MSU, the lowest nationally since 2008 TCU.
9 - Interceptions between Miller and Connor Cook this season (four for Cook)
8.4 - Yards per attempt for Miller.
5.1 - Yards per attempt allowed by MSU.
2.9 - Plays per game of at least 30 yards for Ohio State's offense.
1.3 - Plays per game of at least 30 yards allowed by MSU.
12 - sacks allowed by MSU this season.
39 - sacks for Ohio State's defense, No. 1 nationally.
5.04 - Yards per carry for Jeremy Langford in Big Ten play
4.4 - Yards per carry allowed by Ohio State in Big Ten play (sack-adjusted)
Three keys for MSU:
Convert third downs - MSU was converting about 47 percent of third downs before going 0-for-8 against Minnesota. Because MSU doesn't get many big plays, it's important to keep drives alive with the third down conversions.
Shorten the game - This sort of goes along with third downs. Against a prolific offense, you'd like to keep it to as few possessions as possible. That means extending drives, even if it only results in changing the field position, preventing big plays on defense and avoiding turnovers.
Stop Carlos Hyde - A year ago, Braxton Miller hurt MSU on the ground, but the Buckeyes also developed a solid running game with Hyde, who is averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season. It's something Miller hasn't had in the past two years. MSU will need a huge game from the defensive tackles so the ends can contain Miller and let the linebackers do their work. In my opinion, Hyde is more important to stop than Miller in the running game.
Three keys for Ohio State:
Big plays - The number are above, and the Buckeyes will have their chances as MSU likely sells out to stop the run. Last year, a 63-yard touchdown pass down the sideline proved to be the winning score shortly after MSU had taken the lead.
Force MSU into passing downs - Part of the reason MSU struggled on third downs against Minnesota was because the Gophers were able to get TFLs in the running game on earlier downs. Ohio State wants to make MSU win on Connor Cook's arm.
Turnovers - MSU (+15) and Ohio State (+6) were the top two in the Big Ten in turnover margin, and Nos. 1 and 3 in conference play. Both of these teams take care of the ball, while MSU's defense is better at getting takeaways. If the Buckeyes can get some turnovers out of the Spartans, it could shut down their offense. On the other side, the Buckeyes need to be careful with MSU's aggressive defense. A turnover or two that lead to points would be a boost for that Spartan offense.
Prediction: Ohio State 35-31
MSU's defense is all about forcing opponents to make plays most college players can't. Ohio State can. I do think the combination of Hyde and Miller will cause a lot of problems. In the air, Miller is a lot better at hitting the deep ball than he has been in past years.
I also think MSU's offense will be able to move the ball. The offense is better when the weather is nicer, and it can't get any better than indoors. I think we're going to see a bit of a shootout.
It's all but guaranteed the Ohio State will score on the opening drive and the "Maybe MSU's defense isn't that good" tweets will come out. MSU's defense is good. It's very good. But there's a reason Russell Wilson tore it apart twice in 2011. By design, it blows up inferior offenses. Ohio State has playmakers all over the field, and I think they'll get their share of points. Some turnovers could swing the game in the other direction, though.
In the end, I'm expecting a close, back-and-forth game, and I, by no means, would be surprised by an MSU win. I'm expecting the crowd to be at least 65 percent red, so the MSU fans traveling best be ready to make it feel like a neutral atmosphere.
It's a showcase game and an opportunity for MSU to measure up in front of the nation. Buckle up and get ready to chase it.