Nov. 25, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
By forcing just 14 turnovers in its first 11 games, it was pretty clear that everything Michigan State had accomplished before the regular season finale at Minnesota was done the hard way.
The Spartans were well behind the pace they set in 2011 when they led the Big Ten with 29 takeaways en route to an 11-3 record and the Legends Division championship.
Furthermore, the defense had contributed no touchdowns this season after scoring five the previous year.
But in Saturday's 26-10 bowl-clinching victory over the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, MSU finally made its job a little easier. The Spartans still haven't scored a defensive touchdown, but they picked off four passes.
The offense converted the season-high four forced turnovers into 10 points, but more importantly, the picks allowed the defense to get off the field.
"Turnovers definitely help out and we have turnover goals that we try to accomplish in every game," said defensive backfield coach Harlon Barnett. "But we've been trying to do it the hard way. We've been shutting the run down the way we should be and forcing teams into passing situations, but we just haven't been able to get those turnovers.
"We've had opportunities, but for whatever reasons, just weren't making them. Hopefully, now the tide turned, and we're going to start making them again."
Senior cornerback Johnny Adams' first of two interceptions off freshman quarterback Philip Nelson ended Minnesota's game-opening drive and set up Dan Conroy's 48-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Adams' second pickoff ended a Gopher drive at midfield late in the second quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, junior cornerback Darqueze Dennard plucked a Nelson pass out of the air at the MSU 40-yard line and returned it 3 yards. Eleven plays later, running back Le'Veon Bell ran for an 8-yard touchdown that secured the victory.
Red-shirt freshman RJ Williamson, who had his first career interception in the season-opening win over Boise State, finally got his second, off backup Gopher quarterback Max Shortell, and returned it 21 yards with 2:13 remaining.
"They're contagious once you get one and then they just keep coming," Adams said. "I'm happy that as senior I got that first turnover and got the ball rolling. The defense came and played our part today and the offense did what they had to do, and that's why we got the win."
The Spartans had zero turnovers in their 20-3 loss to Notre Dame. They forced three in the one-point defeat against Ohio State, which finished the season undefeated, just one in the 19-16 overtime loss to Iowa, one in the 12-10 loss at Michigan, three in the 28-24 loss to Nebraska and none in the 23-20 defeat at the hands of Northwestern.
One more turnover in each of those games might have turned it in MSU's favor.
Adams said the Spartans didn't do anything differently against Minnesota.
"We played with the same mentality and the same effort," he said. "We've been doing it all along. The ball is just bouncing our way now. It was definitely a sigh of relief. Going into the bowl game, this definitely helps our confidence."
Michigan State also limited Minnesota to just 4 yards rushing and 96 total yards, and didn't allow an offensive touchdown.
Special teams also got in on the act.
Andre Sims Jr.'s MSU season-long 44-yard punt return to the Minnesota 7 late in the third quarter set up a 30-yard Conroy field goal. Although Conroy, who has been dealing with uncharacteristic misses all season, misfired on his second attempt - from 42 yards in the first quarter - he also had a pair of 43-yarders, including one that ricocheted off the goalpost and through the uprights, as he tied the MSU single-season record with 22 field goals made.
"Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way," Barnett said. "It doesn't feel good, but if you keep working hard and trying, eventually it will turn around.
"We've been talking about having a complete game and based on the season we've had, especially the last several weeks, this is the most complete game we've played offensively, defensively and on special teams."