EAST LANSING — LJ Scott scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with a little less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to pull Michigan State within a point.
In the next-to-last game of a miserable 3-9 season for the Spartans in 2016, coach Mark Dantonio went for the 2-point conversion while attempting to knock off No. 2 Ohio State. Tyler O'Connor's pass was intercepted and the Buckeyes escaped East Lansing with a 17-16 win en route to a trip to the College Football Playoff.
That stands as the last touchdown Michigan State scored against Ohio State as the Spartans have been held out of the end zone for the last 124:41 of game time, with three field goals as the only offensive production in that span. The Buckeyes routed Michigan State 48-3 in Columbus in 2017 and pulled away late for a 26-6 win last year at Spartan Stadium.
"I actually didn't know that, that's kind of crazy," Michigan State fifth-year defensive tackle Raequan Williams said of the touchdown drought, "so I know those guys are going to be motivated about that."
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Williams has been focused on his own job against the high-powered Buckeyes and will be doing so again on Saturday when No. 25 Michigan State (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) plays at No. 4 Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten). On the other side of the ball, the offense will look to snap out of a two-year funk against the scarlet and gray.
"Different year," said Michigan State fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke, who is 0-2 against the Buckeyes as a starter. "We're not focused too much on last year or two years ago or whatever, we're focused on what we can get done this year. The offense is confident so we're good."
Michigan State scored just one offensive touchdown in two of the first three games this season but has shown growth lately. The Spartans won 31-10 at Northwestern two weeks ago and are coming off a 40-31 victory against Indiana. That was the first time they topped 30 points in back-to-back games against Power Five opponents since the final two games of the 2017 season.
"I do like our offense," Dantonio said. "It's more productive than it was last year, there's no question."
Michigan State's offense, under new coordinator Brad Salem, has experience growing pains and ranks in the middle of the pack nationally in scoring (tied for 60th at 31.4) and total offense (71st at 413.6), but has improved from last season's awful numbers. It starts with Lewerke, who ranks 29th in the nation in passing yards per game (265.0) and has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He also rushed for 78 yards on 12 carries last week again the Hoosiers.
It's a much different Lewerke than last year, when he struggled the second half of the season playing with an injured throwing shoulder, which also reduced his threat as a runner. He finished just 11-for-28 passing for 128 yards and an interception against Ohio State last season and was replaced by Rocky Lombardi last in the first half.
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"I feel a ton more confident I guess," Lewerke said. "I feel fine being able to do whatever I need to do, run it or pass it. I'm ready."
Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins has emerged as Michigan State's featured running back and leads the team with 78 carries for 413 yards and three touchdowns. Fifth-year senior Darrell Stewart Jr. is off to a monster start to the season and ranks seventh in the nation in receiving yards per game (111.2) and is tied for 10th in receptions per game (7.0).
"One thing that I always tell myself is there's always more to be done," Stewart said. "We've got a game Saturday, a huge one. I'm just ready. I'm just trying to keep showing people what I can do and have fun while I'm doing it."
Michigan State is obviously more confident on offense than last year when it faced Ohio State, which marked the first of three times the Spartans failed to score a touchdown in the final four games of the season. However, they're also about to face the best defense they've seen this year.
The Buckeyes rank second in the nation in total defense (223.8) and fourth in scoring defense (8.6) and have a slew of talent. That includes defensive end Chase Young, who leads the nation with eight sacks.
Asked about Young, who could be the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft, Dantonio said he hasn't "thought of him in the human context." That unusual compliment drew laughs, but the junior is a serious concern for the Spartans, including left tackle Tyler Higby and right tackle Jordan Reid.
"We have to be able to control him to some degree," Dantonio said, "because he can wreck a football game."
Ohio State ranks 15th in the nation in rushing defense (85.0) and is sixth in passing yards allowed per game (138.8). The secondary is led by cornerback Jeff Okudah, who already has three interceptions.
"Probably the best DBs we've faced so far," Lewerke said, "so it's going to take me being accurate, receivers getting open and making catches."
If Michigan State is going to compete for a Big Ten title, a win at Ohio State on Saturday is likely required. And if the Spartans are going to do that, finding the end zone against the Buckeyes for the first time in three years is a good place to start. That's an obvious part of a lot of what it will take for Michigan State to be successful on offense on Saturday night.
"I think what you've got to do is you've got to be opportunistic on the offensive side of the ball," Dantonio said. "You can't take negative yardage plays, you can't get the ball knocked off you, you can't take sacks, you can't throw interceptions. So, you have to play mistake free, opportunistic, and then we've got to make plays, whether it's special teams or defensively, and we've got to be able to run the ball somewhat. There's all of that."