BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Michigan State has found the perfect balance this season.
Connor Cook is shredding Big Ten defenses. A large group of talented receivers keeps making huge plays. The rushing numbers are piling up, and on Saturday, the Spartans shut out high-scoring Indiana for the final 35 1/2 minutes.
The biggest question around the conference might be whether anyone on the Spartans' schedule can stop them from making college football's inaugural playoff.
"We were able to run the football. Possession time was about 40/20," coach Mark Dantonio said after the 56-17 blowout. "Just an outstanding job by our guys."
Since Dantonio's arrival in 2007, Michigan State (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) has traditionally relied on defense and ball control to win games. It's worked masterfully.
The Spartans played in two of the conference's first three championship games, won a Rose Bowl and are now on a streak of 13 consecutive wins against Big Ten foes including last year's title game.
This year, the Spartans have opened it up.
Cook has emerged as one of the league's most proficient passers in his second season as the starter. He threw for three more touchdowns Saturday, including a 4-yard shovel pass to R.J. Shelton that broke open the game.
Jeremy Langford rushed for 109 yards and three scores. Nick Hill had 178 yards, including a late 76-yard TD run, and Tony Lippett finished with his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season. By the time Saturday's rout ended, the Spartans had 332 yards passing and 330 yards rushing and had pushed their average scoring total to 47 points.
The biggest change has been the play of Michigan State's receivers.
Lippett entered the weekend leading the league in yards receiving (111.5) and touchdown receptions (eight), and he didn't disappoint against Indiana. He finished with seven catches and 123 yards, none of his plays more spectacular than the sliding, over-the-shoulder 41-yard grab he made right in front of the Michigan State coaches on third-and-9. Six plays later, Cook threw the TD pass to Shelton that broke open the game.
Those sorts of plays seem to be infectious.
Tight end Josiah Price made Indiana pay for Donovan Clark's gamble by turning a first-down pass into a 67-yard catch-and-run to set up Michigan State's go-ahead score in the second quarter. Aaron Burbridge managed to keep his balance after spinning away from a defender during the second quarter, picking up nine yards on third-and-7 to keep another touchdown drive alive. And somehow Macgarrett Kings Jr. saved Cook by stealing a pass that appeared to be intercepted.
"I thought the receivers played outstanding. They made a lot of 50-50 catches," Dantonio said.
Michigan State's defense looks as though it's improving, too.
After holding off late rallies by Nebraska and Purdue, the Spartans forced six three-and-outs, allowed just 11 yards passing and held Indiana to its second-lowest point total of the season.
The timing couldn't be better.
Michigan State hosts rival Michigan next week, then welcomes Ohio State to town for a rematch of last year's classic Big Ten title game before closing the season at Maryland, at home against Rutgers and at Penn State.
And if the Spartans keep playing like this, a second straight trip to the Big Ten title game seems entirely plausible.