There was a time when Michigan State's offense could not produce, a time when the Spartans defense was outscoring the Spartans offense, a time when a passing touchdown was as rare in East Lansing as someone wearing maize and blue.
That time was September.
Though Michigan State's defense is what draws all the attention — and rightfully so, ranking No. 1 in the country — the impressive strides made by the Spartans offense are a big reason this team is playing for a Big Ten championship on Saturday night.
"From Game 1 to Game 11, they are the most improved offense, certainly in the Big Ten and maybe one of the most improved in America."
Those are the words of Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, the man tasked with game-planning for what is now a unit that warrants attention.
Things looked a lot different back in September, when in the season's opening week, Andrew Maxwell was the starting quarterback. He threw for just 74 yards vs. Western Michigan, and a Kurtis Drummond interception return and a Shilique Calhoun fumble return accounted for 14 of the team's 26 points. A week later, Maxwell threw for just 40 yards, and Calhoun scored two more touchdowns — one pick-six, one fumble return — in a 21-6 win over South Florida. Two games later, Connor Cook had stepped in as the new starting QB and threw the season's first passing TD against an FBS school, but Michigan State mustered just 13 points in its lone loss to Notre Dame.
By the end of September, against FBS opponents, Calhoun had triple the touchdowns of the Spartans passing attack.
But once Big Ten play got going, so did the Spartans offense. Cook finished the regular season with 2,119 passing yards and 17 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. But the real star of the show was Jeremy Langford, the running back who went for more than 100 yards on the ground in each of the team's final seven games, finishing the season with 1,210 yards, the fifth highest total in the Big Ten.
And, of course, all the while the Spartans have just kept on winning. The interesting thing was, however, that not every win was a defensive struggle, with the Spartans simply smothering opposing offenses. The Michigan State offense started putting on shows, scoring 40-plus points three times and at least 29 points in two other wins. It's a unit that, along with its quarterback, seems to get better every week.
Though he picked Maxwell out of camp, Dantonio credits the development of the sophomore Cook with how well the season has gone for Michigan State.
"It was obviously extremely critical," Dantonio said at his press conference Tuesday. "He's 10-1 right now as the starter. ... I think he has grown. I really felt like after the Iowa game we saw great growth, and then when he was able to come back in the next game and the next two or three games and put together back to back games with great play, I thought that it was a very big positive step for him.
"But these are new experiences as we go forward. They are new experiences, they're different games every week, different defenses, different personnel, so there's a learning curve there. ... I also think he's a resilient young man. I mean, he can get knocked down and get back up, and that's as important as anything in a football game. He has that presence about him, that ability to take a hit, to take something bad happening out there and be able to respond, and I think that's huge, especially in a championship venue, because there's going to be some bad plays."
Though all eyes in Saturday's Big Ten title bout will be on the matchup between Michigan State's elite defense and Ohio State's explosive offense, it's what Cook, Langford & Co. do that could determine who emerges with a conference championship. And they could have the opportunity, too. Though Ohio State's defense is a good one, it's coming off its worst game of the year, having allowed more than 600 yards of offense to Michigan last week.
"Any time you see your opponent give up that many yards the week before you play them, obviously you're licking your chops, you're feeling more confident, you're feeling more excited for the game itself," Cook said on a teleconference Monday. "But we've just got to treat it like any other game we've had all year, don't really over-think anything, don't get your hopes up — 'We can do this, we can do that.' Just follow through with the game plan that the coaches have, that they're going to provide us with. Just stay focused in practice, just focus on what we're supposed to do, our job, and things will take care of itself."