Oct. 19, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's 14-0 victory against Purdue ranks somewhere between a wake-up call and a power nap.
It wasn't the scare it would have been had the Spartans struggled right to the very end to pull out a win against the 1-6 Boilermakers, who are rebuilding from the ground up with youth.
And, it could turn out to be the refresher that perks MSU up heading down the stretch as even bigger games and postseason goals come into view.
Although the offense misfired too many times, especially in the passing game, Michigan State improved to 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten while becoming bowl-eligible for the seventh time in as many seasons under head coach Mark Dantonio.
The outcome may not have appeared to be in doubt after the ball came loose when middle linebacker Max Bullough blindsided true-freshman Purdue quarterback Danny Etling, and outside linebacker Denicos Allen scored on a 45-yard fumble return in the second quarter.
It was just a matter of how attractive the win would end up looking.
"We started off a little slow and had some missed tackles," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "I thought we had an average week of practice and I told those guys that, and that leads to maturity. Whether that was a factor or not, I have no idea. I think we have a mature defense and I'm happy with where they are.
"But when you're playing for championships, you have to come to practice every day and you've got to come to play every day. I think they did; I'm not saying they didn't. But I think we had an average week of practice and I wish it would have been better."
While 7-0 looked like a pretty insurmountable lead to Narduzzi, he re-calibrated the defense's attention at halftime
"We come out and play defense, and that's our job," he said. "We expect to stop them on every down, and at halftime I said, `Hey, they ain't scoring. We're gonna get a shutout.'
"That was kind of part of the halftime speech. It doesn't matter what the score is (to us)."
Although the Boilermakers 226 yards of offense were equally split between the halves, MSU sealed its first shutout over a conference opponent since beating Northwestern, 34-0, in 1999. It was the Spartans' first blanking, overall, since a 44-0 decision against Florida Atlantic in 2011, and first against Purdue since a 23-0 win in West Lafayette 50 years ago.
"I feel like a few people weren't in the right mind-state to play a Big Ten team, not just Purdue, but a Big Ten team," Allen said. "I felt a lot of people failed to realize that. It doesn't matter what their record is, they're still in the Big Ten and have the potential to beat anybody in the Big Ten. I definitely think the practice we had carried over into the first half."
The Spartans snapped to it by holding the Boilermakers to just 7 rushing yards in the second half and 66 for the game. Michigan State hasn't allowed an opponent to gain 100 yards on the ground this season.
Naruduzzi's "halftime speeches always get us more pumped," Allen said. "It's a new game after you get his halftime speech. We realized ourselves they were getting a lot of yards on the ground and we pride ourselves on stopping the run.
"We went into the second half with the mindset we've gotta shut down the run, and if we do that, they'll pass more and we can take advantage of that. We just told each other that it's on us and if they don't score, we win. It's as simple as that. Last year in the close games, we'd give up a touchdown at the end of some and put the pressure on our offense. We don't want to do that this year."
Gauging a team's emotional readiness is an inexact science, and Dantonio felt the Spartans were suitably energized on the sideline before kickoff. Likewise, Jack Allen, who started at center and played both guard positions against Purdue, didn't feel like the offense came out flat or looking past the Boilermakers.
"I didn't read anything like that," Jack Allen said. "I would say, yeah, we came out the same (as we did against Iowa and Indiana). Hey, it was another game to play, to get better and have fun. So I think we were all pretty excited about it.
"We tried to beat people up, up front, which we did."
Nevertheless, the offense came out of the game with a seriously mixed message. Tailback Jeremy Langford had 24 rushes for 131 yards, for his second consecutive 100-yard game and career-best effort.
But after two strong showings in a row against Iowa and Indiana, quarterback Connor Cook over- and under-threw to an unsatisfactory 13-for-25, 107-yard passing performance. It probably didn't help matters that senior wideout Bennie Fowler, who had become a steadying force for the receiving corps, didn't play because of a hamstring injury and Aaron Burbridge joined him on the bench during the game with an undisclosed injury during the game.
But then, as if the offense followed the defense's lead, Cook drove the Spartans 73 yards on nine plays to put MSU ahead by two touchdowns with 8:50 remaining. The big plays were Cook's 25-yard pass to Macgarrett Kings Jr. on third-and-12 and a 26-yarder to tight end Josiah Price to the Purdue 7-yard line. Cook then sold the Boilermakers on a quarterback sweep to the left before handing off to wideout Tony Lippett on a reverse. Lippett could have trotted into the end zone himself, but tossed a touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Andrew Gleichert, instead.
Then, after the defense force Purdue to punt, Cook managed the final six minutes and 40 seconds with a 12-play, 55-yard game-ending drive.
"Below average," said Cook, grading his performance. "Obviously, I would have liked to have a higher completion percentage. I wasn't really stepping into my throws. We ran the ball great all game. The offensive line, no surprise, another amazing job. We came together at the end, we finished strong and that's what matters.
"I don't think there are any concerns. We showed what we're capable of. We played great against Iowa, we played great against Indiana, we moved the ball well against Notre Dame. There's no concerns amongst us as an offense. A win's a win. Anytime you win, you move forward. That's what we did. We won, we're going to move forward."
Dantonio, who was Ohio State's defensive coordinator during a national-championship campaign that in 2002 featured a similar win over Purdue, among others, knows better than to be unappreciative of a victory, regardless of what they look like.
"A step back is when you lose," he said. "It's a step forward. You can cut it any way you want..., (but) we can all learn from it, coaching- and playing-wise. I'm not going to apologize for winning."