Nov. 2, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Maybe now the skeptics, who charged that Michigan State's status as the best defense in the nation had more to do with quality of the teams on the schedule than actual prowess, will believe.
The Spartans' green pants were vintage early 1950s and so was their domination of Michigan in Saturday's 29-6 victory.
This wasn't Youngstown State, Purdue or Illinois.
This was Michigan.
With a season-high seven quarterback sacks, MSU had the Wolverines running backwards for minus-48 rushing yards. Michigan came into the game with the country's eighth-best scoring offense; it came out of it with two first-half field goals.
In addition to keeping its last three opponents out of the end zone, MSU has prevented the Wolverines from scoring a touchdown in eight consecutive quarters and 12 of the last 13 dating back to 2011.
This wasn't Western Michigan or South Florida.
This was Michigan, the team that earlier in the week said, from the top down, it was determined to make up for being manhandled by the Spartans in that 28-14 loss two years ago.
By leading MSU with nine tackles, including two sacks of quarterback Devin Gardner for minus-18 yards and three tackles behind the line for minus-20, outside linebacker Denicos Allen was eminently qualified to put what had just happened in historical context.
"Two years ago wasn't nothing," Allen said. "It was a lot worse today, and I think they felt it. I definitely think it's the best (we played this season). We played great team defense, we contained the quarterback very well. It was just everybody on the defense making plays.
"Every time Gardner would get hit, he would kind of get up with this look of frustration and doubt. We just knew that we were going to go into the game and do what we did. It's just as simple as that."
Gardner, a heretofore dangerous dual-threat as a runner and passer, got pushed, pulled, twisted and thrown around like a bedraggled rag doll by Spartan defensive end Shillique Calhoun and linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks apiece, in addition to being harassed into seven hurried passes.
Gardner ended up with minus-46 yards rushing, a stunning 130 under his ninth-place Big Ten average of plus-74.3 per game. He completed 14 of 27 passes for 210 yards, but only 49 of those yards came after halftime. Gardner's harried interception by MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard at the 3-yard line, when the Wolverines still had life in the fourth quarter, led to the Spartans' game-clinching 97-yard touchdown drive.
Senior middle linebacker Max Bullough, still wearing the green pants reminiscent of the ones his grandfather, Henry, did for Michigan State while winning two national titles, a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl from 1951-53, said, in so many words: I told you so.
"You talk about how it was a physical beat-down out here, and I think that anyone watching that game, or was in that game, would agree with you," Bullough said. "I can stand here and name all the offenses (MSU has stopped) again if you want me to.
"But yeah, Michigan's a good offense, they put up points and was one of the best offenses in the country going into this game, just like they have been every year. This will last the rest of my life, but we've got a few more games left and the Rose Bowl is going to last the rest of my life. That's what I'm looking forward to - the work's not done."
But, another milestone has been reached under seven-year head coach Mark Dantonio, who has presided in five victories over Michigan in the last six meetings, a feat last accomplished from 1956-62. Additionally, MSU has defeated U-M in three consecutive games at Spartan Stadium for the first time in school history.
"We've got a quarterback (Connor Cook) who's resilient, he makes some plays, he's young, he's still growing and there was a big opportunity to grow this game," Dantonio said. "We got receivers catching the football, we've got a running back (Jeremy Langford, 120 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries) running and our offensive line is playing pretty well.
"Defensively, we've just been dominant. (Opponents) haven't scored a touchdown in the last three weeks. In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often, and that's a credit to (defensive coordinator Pat) Narduzzi and his staff..., the graduate assistants and to our players and how they're able to adjust right in midstream of a game. And, they play with confidence."
It's almost as if the defense is feeding off fuel it's continuously creating.
"We've got a certain amount of talent out there, but when you tack confidence onto that talent-level, and a belief in the system and a belief in each other, great things are possible," Dantonio said. "I think you saw that today."
Four of U-M's first five drives ended on fourth-and-20 (field goal), fourth-and-21 (punt), fourth-and-24 (punt) and fourth-and-48 (punt).
But the Spartans' most impressive defensive stand of the game, and perhaps the season, came late in the third quarter when Cook threw an interception, which Wolverine defensive back Taylor Raymon returned 17 yards to the MSU 41.
A U-M touchdown would have cut the Spartans' lead to 16-13, but on first down, strong safety Isaiah Lewis and Calhoun dropped Gardner for a 5-yard loss. On second down, Allen sacked Gardner for 9 yards and on third down, Allen and Davis sacked him for 7 more to force a punt on fourth-and-31.
The defense not only prevented the momentum from shifting, it provided the offense with a surge that resulted in a 1-yard Cook touchdown for a 14-point swing and a 22-6 lead.
"We call it a sudden-change situation," Narduzzi said. "A lot of guys go, `Oh gol, we've got to go (back in) on a sudden change.' But our guys take the attitude that, we get to play again. We went three downs, and really just attacked them.
"That's what we wanted to do - attack them for four quarters. We just played our defense. There were no surprises. What they saw (in the game) is what they saw on tape. It's just how we play. It's our base defense and base-zone pressure."
Allen wasn't celebrating Cook's interception, but he didn't mind getting another shot at the Wolverines in a pressure-packed situation.
"That's just how our defense plays," he said. "We love being on the field, no matter what, coming off a turnover or whatever.
"It just gives us more opportunities to go out there and show why we're the No. 1 defense in the nation."