By Noah Trister
AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. — A year ago, Michigan State’s Tyler O’Connor was forced into action in what turned out to be the most significant game of the Big Ten regular season — an upset win at Ohio State that vaulted the Spartans into the national championship race and ultimately kept the Buckeyes out.
As badly as this season has gone for O’Connor and his teammates, looking back at that game gives them some hope.
“When you go back and watch the film, it’s hard not to implant that image in your head about what we did against them last year,” O’Connor said. “We’ll take some confidence into this game as well, but at the same time understand how good they are.”
Michigan State has fallen fast since last season’s Big Ten title. If the Spartans can upset the second-ranked Buckeyes this weekend , they’ll merely be playing the role of spoilers in the national championship race, but that should be plenty of motivation in a rivalry that’s picked up considerably in recent seasons.
And speaking of motivation, Ohio State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) should have plenty of it, for obvious reasons.
“That was the reason why we didn’t accomplish the goals that we had set for last year, so I think a lot of the guys take this game personal,” OSU safety Malik Hooker acknowledged.
With star quarterback Connor Cook out injured, O’Connor and Michigan State won the 2015 game against the Buckeyes on a 41-yard field goal by Michael Geiger as time expired. That ended Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak.
“It was definitely a terrible feeling,” tight end Marcus Baugh said. “Just disappointed we couldn’t get that one. You don’t want to feel that again.”
The Buckeyes are no. 2 in this week’s ranking from the playoff committee. A win this weekend would set up quite a showdown against rival Michigan to close the regular season.
Saturday’s game will be the finale at home this season for Michigan State (3-7, 1-6) — and a chance for the Spartans to make up for at least some of the disappointments that have piled up this year.
Here are a few things to watch when Michigan State hosts Ohio State:
HAPPY VISITORS: The home team hasn’t won in this series since Ohio State beat Michigan State in Columbus in 2007. The road team has taken all five regular-season games since. The teams also met in the 2013 Big Ten title game, which the Spartans won.
HISTORY: If the Spartans are looking for some historical comfort, last season’s game may not even be the best analogy. In 1998, Ohio State was no. 1 in the nation when it lost at home in November to an unranked Michigan State team.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio was an assistant for Michigan State then. The Spartans finished 6-6.
“We went down and played the number one team in Ohio, at Ohio Stadium, at Ohio State, and won,” Dantonio said. “Didn’t go to a bowl game that year, but everybody seems to remember it, so, I guess that’s something.”
KUDOS FOR RECEIVERS: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer this week praised the work of Ohio State’s outside receivers. They haven’t had a lot of flashy catches lately but have excelled throwing blocks that have sprung H-back Curtis Samuel, quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Mike Weber for big gains.
Meyer said those receivers, mainly Noah Brown, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, had their best games the past two weeks, even though the box scores might not directly reflect it.
Receivers were criticized earlier in the season when the passing game bogged down, but Meyer is now lauding them for their selflessness.
“I’ve been around men who are complete buffoons about that kind of stuff,” Meyer said. “When you recruit them, you hope they’re not that way. You kind of try to get in their grill and find out if they’re a selfish guy, because our objective is to win the game at all costs.”
FORECAST: It was windy and rainy last year when these teams met, and the Spartans prevailed 17-14. Michigan State probably wouldn’t mind another low-scoring game, and the National Weather Service says it could be windy, rainy and perhaps even a bit snowy Saturday in East Lansing.
MILESTONE: Ohio State’s Mike Weber, who played high school football at Cass Tech in Detroit, needs 65 yards rushing to become the third Ohio State freshman to reach 1,000. Robert Smith (1990) and Maurice Clarett (2002) were the others.