SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- If not for an ill-advised halfback pass, Michigan State just might be playing for a BCS title a month from now.
Michigan State fans and Notre Dame haters may point to the five first downs the Irish offense received courtesy of five controversial penalties -- four pass interference calls and one defensive holding -- in a 17-13 win on Sept. 21. But with an ugly game tied at 10 late in the third quarter, Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford seemed to be getting into a groove.
Langford rushed 11 yards for a first down, giving Michigan State the ball near midfield. Given how both defenses dominated the game, one score -- a field goal or touchdown -- might've been enough for Michigan State.
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Instead, the Spartans called on freshman running back R.J. Shelton to throw a pass. Matthias Farley picked it off, Notre Dame drove for a go-ahead touchdown and hung on to hand Michigan State its only loss of the season.
Notre Dame wide receiver T.J. Jones said he didn't realize Michigan State had just one loss until the team's record was flashed across the screen during the Big 10 Championship last weekend.
"Yeah, to us," Jones laughed. "Once we saw that, I didn't know they only had one loss, and it was kinda funny to think that was us."
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Michigan State's season, though, stands as a reminder that teams can make significant improvements over the course of a season. The Spartans' strength has been on defense all year, but sophomore Connor Cook emerged as a fairly effective quarterback, throwing for 21 touchdowns with only five interceptions. His magnum opus was a 304-yard, three-touchdown showing against Ohio State that helped sent Michigan State to its first Rose Bowl since 1988.
Cook completed 16 of 32 passes against Notre Dame for 135 yards.
Jones said, from his point of view, Michigan State cleaned up a lot of the things it did wrong against Notre Dame as the season went on.
"I think it's the same Michigan State team that we played, I think in the games they've won they made a little less errors -- there was a lot of pass interference calls and other penalties that set us up for scores or flip field position," Jones said. "And you don't see that in the more recent games that they've played."
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Had Arizona State beat Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship, Notre Dame could've said it had wins over both participants in the Rose Bowl (ASU lost 38-14).
Five teams from the five power conferences (excluding the AAC) had one loss. The teams that served those losses: LSU, Auburn, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Michigan State. That's pretty good company, and it proves a point argued by Irish linebacker Dan Fox.
"You just see that you could go either way in college football," Fox said in relation to Michigan State. "There's little inches that could send the season one way or another. That really showed that college football's tough."