Oct. 6, 2012
By Steve Grinczel
Michigan State's defense gave new meaning to the concept of "playing scared."
That term is usually associated with being timid and so afraid of making a mistake you can't function properly. However, middle linebacker Max Bullough likened the Spartans' comeback from a 17-0 first-quarter deficit at Indiana to how someone who's hanging by their fingertips on the edge of a cliff must feel.
The alternative to not fighting with everything you've got to regain a foothold can't end well.
With the fear of suffering a defeat that would be all but fatal to its championship hopes as its primary motivation, MSU climbed back to trail by 13 points at halftime and 10 at the end of the third quarter before pulling out a 31-27 victory in Memorial Stadium.
After giving up 270 total yards and 17 first downs in the first half, the Spartan defense held the Hoosiers to 37 yards and two first downs the rest of the way while the offense responded with a 17-0 second-half run.
"I think it scares you a little bit when you're in that situation," Bullough said. "But, I think that can bring out the best in you. Our backs were against the wall coming into this game, and certainly even more so when we were down at halftime.
"Anytime you're down at halftime it hits you in the heart a little bit. That brought out the fear in us so when we needed to make plays, we did."
Lauded as the Big Ten's top defense, and one of the best in the nation, going into the season, the Spartans seemingly had no answer for Indiana's up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack during the early stages.
The Hoosiers opened the game by moving the ball 75 yards on seven plays in just 77 seconds to take a 7-0 lead and were up by three scores with 1:38 still to play in the first period.
Bullough said it didn't feel like the Spartans weren't prepared or playing poorly when the avalanche threatened to engulf them. It was just a matter of MSU playing at one speed and Indiana clicking at another.
"We practiced all week for a fast-tempo offense, which I think is hard to replicate when that's how a team plays every week, and that's been their M.O.," he said. "In the first half, we were trying to get our feet on the ground and get comfortable with the pace and the plays they were running.
"I thought our guys were running around, but give credit to them for playing us well and making plays at that fast pace. In the second half, they ran similar plays, but we were in more of an attack mode than being on our heels."
Bullough and the other veterans drew on the experience of coming back from a 16-0 halftime deficit against Georgia in the Outback Bowl to win, 33-30, in triple overtime.
"I think we were comfortable with what we were doing and felt it would work as long as we executed," Bullough said. "That's just about guys being mature and having poise, and being able to step back, evaluate the situation and keep playing.
"It's never as bad as it looks."
While the MSU offense got revved up on the ground and through the air in the second half, the defense forced the Hoosiers to go three-and-out on four of their last six drives, including the final three.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said that with only 10-15 seconds between plays to get in position, the Spartans struggled at first to be aligned correctly.
"Guys weren't getting lined up exactly where we needed them to be," he said. "Give (the Hoosiers) credit because they did some nice things to keep us off balance a little bit, and we just didn't make plays.
"It was just a matter of getting the guys up to that pace. As a coach, you never think things are going to get drastic and you always feel like you'll figure out what the problem is and fix what's going on."
Indiana ran the ball six times and passed it 21 while building its 17-0 advantage.
"They didn't even attempt to run the ball early and just kept trying to hit us out in the flats," Narduzzi said. "Once our kids settled down, relaxed and understood, `this is what they're doing and this is what we need to do,' and we adjusted some things alignment-wise, we were much better."
Backups Taiwan Jones, at outside linebacker, and RJ Williamson, at safety, closed down the Hoosiers' horizontal attack with some fearsome tackles. Williamson tied Bullough with a team-high nine stops.
"Taiwan Jones and RJ Williamson really came in and did some things athletically that we needed to fix along with (cornerback) Darqueze Dennard," Narduzzi said. "Those guys came in and made plays and Max Bullough played his tail off and was running to the ball real well.
"The first thing that comes to my mind is character. We're down 17-0 and our kids just kept believing and sticking with it. That shows we have something in our chest cavity."