Oct. 9, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It had to be a stinging admission, but Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough made it like a head-on tackle, without hesitation and nary a flinch.
"We talk and think about it all the time," the senior co-captain said about MSU's 0-4 Big Ten home record last season. "That's embarrassing. I don't even remember the last time we won a Big Ten game here in Spartan Stadium."
In case Bullough's memory hasn't been refreshed by now, it came by the score of 55-3 in the second-to-last regular-season game of 2011 against Indiana, the team the Spartans host Saturday.
Despite being in every conference home game down to the wire last season, MSU lost by a total of 11 points to: Ohio State (17-16), Iowa (19-16 in double overtime), Nebraska (28-24) and Northwestern (23-20).
"That's a stadium we want to defend and took pride in being able to do that before last year," Bullough said. "So, that's something we're looking to get back."
The resurgent Hoosiers pose a considerable risk to that eventuality. They are leading the Big Ten with 535 yards of total offense per game and in passing (346), and are second in scoring (44.4 points).
However, it was a 17-0 second half in the 31-27 come-from-behind victory at Indiana that ultimately saved the Spartans' season in '12. They avoided what would have been a catastrophic loss with a critical comeback instigated by a defense that said "no more" after giving up 17 points in the first quarter and 10 in the second, and an offense that came alive.
Michigan State outgained the Hoosiers, 259-37, in the second half.
Bullough promised that the Spartan defense, which continues to lead the nation in five major categories, will not be caught unawares by Indiana's up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this time.
"They were quicker than we anticipated, even though we practiced for it," he said. "But when you get into a game like that against a team that does it week in and week out it's different than us trying to do it in one week.
"It's kind of like a team trying to replicate our defense. We do it every week and they do it for only one week. We just have to be fast and be ready. But, we did respond (last season) in the second half, and now that we have that experience we'll be able to respond even quicker this year."
The defense is preparing this week by facing one of two, alternating scout-team offenses coming out of the huddle and lining up immediately at the completion of the preceding play. First-year defensive line coach Ron Burton, who worked against a fast-paced offense every day in practice last season at Air Force, said the knowledge MSU players gained from facing the Hoosiers' pass-oriented version will be invaluable.
"Being in the fire is key," Burton said. "Experience is the true teacher, and that experience is there. We do a lot of evaluation in the off-season and during the season, and (the Hoosiers) have done it to everyone. We've got a good picture of what we're going to get with the time of the plays and the number of plays we're going to see.
"That's a fact, and we've got a veteran team. These guys are conditioned, but we're conditioning them for what they're going to see at a fast pace - mentally more than physically for that tempo."
Junior outside linebacker Taiwan Jones had a breakout game against Indiana as a sophomore, but stopped short of saying its offense is a good matchup for him.
"I knew my responsibilities, went out and had fun," Jones said. "We practiced it all week, like we're doing now, so when they came at me they didn't catch me by surprise. The difference (between the two halves last year) is we weren't ready for it.
"We practiced it, but we didn't take it as seriously as we are this year because now we know what to expect. This year, we have a better mindset of what's coming our way on Saturday. We've just got to read our keys and play fast."
The possibility of MSU coming out flat against the Hoosiers this time should be minimal with all the motivating factors surrounding the game. The Spartans don't want to be on the losing end of the 500th game ever played in Spartan Stadium; the 1987 team, which defeated Indiana for the Big Ten Championship; is gathering for Homecoming; and there's that conference losing streak at home to address.
"It motivates us a lot," Jones said. "We don't want anybody coming in and getting a `W' in our house and singing their fight song in our stadium. We take that personally."
Michigan State opened the 2012 season with its 15th consecutive home win, so what happened after that was more of an anomaly than a concern, according to head coach Mark Dantonio. However, the sooner the Spartans reverse the trend the better.
"There were some very, very tight football games here, and we just need to understand that this is our place and we need to play up," Dantonio said. "(You've) got to play up when you're away. Right now, we're a 10-3 football team in the last three years away from home. That's outstanding, but we've got to play up, as well, at home, and we've got to bring that focus back home, which we've talked about quite often in the past year.
"But what's real is the results that we see. That focus will be there."
The flip side of Indiana's fast-pace offense is that if it fails to produce first downs, the defense can be in for a long day. The Hoosiers are last in the Big Ten in total defense and rushing defense and eighth against the pass.
Michigan State, meantime, put together its first complete game of the year, with the offense and special teams complementing the defense in last week's 26-14 Big Ten-opening win at Iowa.
With MSU's receiving corps starting produce on a consistent basis, wideout Macgarrett Kings Jr. said the team's burgeoning confidence outweighs any trepidation about losing a fifth conference game in a row at home.
"We aren't worried about it, but we have it in the back of our heads," he said. "We know that Coach D emphasizes that, so we just want to go out and get things back on the track they should be."