By BRYAN GASKINS
---- — Michigan State’s football team is rolling along at 11-1 overall and 8-0 in the Big Ten. The No. 10-ranked Spartans won the conference’s Legends Division by a whopping three games.
Yet, most of the talk leading up to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night at Indianapolis has centered on the Spartans’ opponent. Leaders Division winner and No. 2-ranked Ohio State is unbeaten (12-0, 8-0) and vying for a spot in the BCS championship game.
Flying under the radar is nothing new for the Spartans, according to former Eastern High School three-sport standout Josiah Price. He is a redshirt freshman tight end for the Spartans.
“I feel like all season, we’ve been looked over a little bit. I think our whole team has felt that way. I think we were 6-1 at one point and not ranked,” said Price, who is tied for second on the team in TD receptions with three. “All season, we’ve kind of had a chip on our shoulder. Coming into the season, we weren’t even ranked.”
Price pointed to the 2012 season as a possible reason. The Spartans finished an unimpressive 3-5 in the Big Ten (7-6 overall) — but their five league losses came by a combined 13 points.
“We had so many close games. We knew we were a good team, we just had some bad breaks at the end of some games,” Price said. “Coming into this year, we had a lot of confidence and we knew what we had the potential to do so it was just a matter of working hard all season and hoping that the games would fall our way at the end of games this year. Thankfully, they have been.”
The Spartans went 3-1 in non-conference play. They beat Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State before dropping a 17-13 decision to Notre Dame on Sept. 21 in South Bend.
Following a bye week, the Spartans opened Big Ten play with a 26-14 road victory over Iowa on Oct. 5.
“To go to Iowa City and get a win right after that tough loss, I’d say that was big for momentum,” Price said.
The Spartans added victories over Indiana, Purdue and Illinois in October, then hit their stride in November as their schedule toughened. Michigan State beat rival Michigan 29-6 at home, then took back-to-back road wins over Nebraska (41-28) and Northwestern (30-6). The Spartans made it 8-0 in league play with a 14-3 win over Minnesota in their home finale last week.
“Every week throughout the season, we just gained a little more confidence,” Price said. “Of course, every game gets bigger when you keep winning and we’ve handled that pressure really well so far. We definitely are excited for the opportunity to play Ohio State, especially with them ranked No. 2 in the country. Last year, when they came up here, it was a close game [Ohio State won 17-16]. We know we can play with them and we’re just excited for the opportunity and the atmosphere.”
Price is making the most of his opportunity. After red-shirting as a true freshman last season when the Spartans had second-team all-league pick Dion Sims at tight end, Price has emerged as the team’s usual starter. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has 13 receptions for 177 yards. His TD receptions came against Illinois, Northwestern and Minnesota. He also is improving as a blocker.
“It’s definitely been a fun season for me,” he said. “Obviously, Dion was a great player. We felt like there was a lot of pressure on us as tight ends to perform at a high level this year. With [tight ends coach Jim] Bollman’s coaching and us all working hard, we’re doing it by committee. We play four guys and it’s gone well. I love working with those guys and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had this season. It’s a dream come true.”
Price is playing well at the right time. He had a TD reception against Northwestern two weeks ago and another TD catch against Minnesota last week.
Price pointed to the speed of the game as the biggest adjustment from high school to college. He also noted the adjustment to playing in front of Big Ten-size crowds.
“The big thing I’m learning is just you really have to focus on what you need to do on each and every play and not let the atmosphere and the hype to each game get to your head. You just have to learn to perform and do what you know how to do,” he said.
Price is excited to return to his home state for Saturday’s game.
“I’m just so thankful for all the support from everybody back in Greentown and Kokomo. I’ve gotten an uncountable number of texts, Facebook messages, tweets — everything. They show me constant support. I’m so thankful for that. It’s a huge blessing to know I have so much support back home and that everyone is watching me up here,” he said.
BIG TEN TITLE GAME • TIME: 8 p.m. Saturday • PLACE: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis • TV: Fox