Sept. 10, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
The Michigan State defense rested. And rested. And rested.
All that leisure time was a just reward for one of the most dominant performances in school history Saturday afternoon in Spartan Stadium. The suffocating 44-0 victory against Florida Atlanta provided MSU with its first shutout since 2008 - also against the Owls, 17-0, in a monsoon - but just the second in 12 seasons.
The Spartans allowed one first down, tying the school record set against Maryland in 1944. The defense gave up 48 yards of total offense, which is seventh on the all-time list and the lowest output surrendered since Michigan State held Notre Dame to 12 yards overall in '65. The Owls put up just 26 yards by halftime and had no first downs in the second half.
They also failed to convert any of their 10 third-down opportunities.
The case is far from closed, but the efficiency with which the Spartans defenders worked erased many of question marks that popped up in the opener against Youngstown State, which lost the game, 28-6, but won time-of-possession, 31:09-28:51.
"We cleaned up a lot of things that were evident in the first game," said head coach Mark Dantonio.
The defense spent so much time watching from sidelines, players rode exercise bikes to keep their muscles from tightening up. The defense was on the field for only 17 ½ minutes this time - five minutes under its best mark last season.
"As a defense, when you're sitting on the sideline, it's a good thing because it means the offense is moving the chains and the defense is doing a pretty good job on third down and getting off the field," said defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. "Sitting on the bench? I really don't mind it all."
The Spartans defenders played just long enough to whet their appetites for next Saturday's game at Notre Dame.
"The boys are cranked up already," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "We didn't have a lot of reps on defense, had a lot of three-and-outs and that just keeps our guys a little fresher for next week."
Narduzzi, who added that "statistics are for losers," was more cognizant of the improvement the defense made, especially by the front four.
"Did we execute?" he said. "We executed last week, but we didn't play with as good of leverage as we needed to. Coach (Harlon) Barnett, coach (Mike) Tressel and coach (Ted) Gill coached the heck out of them and we did it right."
Leverage, Worthy explained, means "just not being hesitant getting off the line of scrimmage. When you play a team that runs a different type of scheme, like last week with Youngstown State, you can be a little bit hesitant because they run a lot of misdirection and you don't want to be out of your gaps and things of this nature.
"Coming into a game like this when they run a lot of pro-I, it gives you a lot more opportunities to know you can penetrate the line of scrimmage at an easier pace, and you can just play your game, play your gap and play fast. If we can play as fast as I know we can play, we'll be a pretty good defense."
Worthy made the defense's first declarative statement on Florida Atlantic's third series of the first quarter when he burst through the offensive line, swatted the blocking back to the ground with one hand and dropped Owls quarterback Wilbert Graham for a 10-yard loss and his first sack of the season.
"It felt pretty good, but that's just the first of many," Worthy said. "I've just got to continue to work hard and those plays will open up for me a lot."
Back-up cornerback Jeremy Langford put an exclamation point on the performance when he plucked a fumble caused by Kurtis Drummond out of the air, and then made like the running back he was last season by darting in and out of traffic for a 37-yard touchdown with 8:22 remaining.
Translating the performance into language that makes sense in the grand scheme of things isn't as easy. Youngstown State did rush for 128 yards and passed for 126 against this MSU defense. On the other hand, the Owls gained 137 yards and had 11 first downs in their 41-3 season-opening loss to Florida.
"Any time you throw a shutout in 2011, I think you're getting a phenomenal performance by your defense," Dantonio said. "I thought our players executed the defense very, very well."
The performance won't carry much weight, however, if Michigan State mumbles its next statement against the type of comparable personnel it will face against the Fighting Irish.
"We have a lot of young guys who are still fitting in with the scheme of the defense and everybody's trying to find their own identity," Worthy said. "This game at Notre Dame will put us to the test and we really will find out who we are as a defense."
With free safety Trenton Robinson as the only senior in the starting lineup, the defense's growth-potential appears limitless.
"You're always trying to find your identity as a football team, but the identity has to be shown over a period of five, six, seven, eight, nine games - probably," Dantonio said. "While it was a great win, our next test is down at Notre Dame. We have to be fundamentally sound, we have to do things well and we have to build our identity.
"I don't think one game makes it, but I thought we took steps headed in that direction today."
The Spartans have a template they know will work again and again.
"It's amazing to hold another college team to one first down," Robinson said. "We played dominant, and that's what we want to be. We can always get better. Zero first downs would be a perfect game.
"If we could do that, we can do it again tomorrow and we can do it again the next day, and we can practice like that and continue to get better. If we truly believe we can dominate like we did today, I don't see anything that can stop us, besides ourselves. I do believe we're going to get better from today."