Saturday, October 15, 2011
Spartans' defense delivers vs. Michigan
By Brian Bennett
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Not long after his interception for a touchdown against Michigan sealed a 28-14 win, Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis fired the first shot toward Madison.
"Wisconsin should know we're coming," Lewis said. "They have a good offense, and that quarterback [Russell Wilson]. But they should just know our defense is coming. And just like any other team, if they're throwing the ball up, our DBs are going to go get it, our linebackers are going to go get it and our lineman are getting after the quarterback. And they're going to hurt him."
Those are bold, confident words considering that the No. 4 Badgers have clearly been the class of the Big Ten through the first half of the season. But the way these Spartans are playing, especially defensively, the confidence is understandable.
After all, they just finished making Denard Robinson, arguably the most difficult player in the nation to contain, look lost and confused. Their offensive line, beset by injuries and youth, finally came together and paved the way for a 167-yard rushing day for tailback Edwin Baker. They bullied and beat the Wolverines for the fourth straight year, the first time Michigan State has done that since 1962.
"I don't need to say a word the rest of my life," senior quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I've just got to hold up four fingers."
The Spartans have a chance to hold up just their index finger, at least in the Big Ten. They are the last team left in the Legends Division with an unbeaten conference record, making them an early front-runner to get to Indianapolis on Dec. 3. If that happens, it will likely be because the defense led the way.
Michigan State entered Saturday's game ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, a perch that seemed shaky when Michigan drove 80 yards for a touchdown on the game's first possession. From then on, however, the top ranking started to make sense.
Michigan's Denard Robinson, left, is sacked by Michigan State's Kevin Pickelman during the third quarter Saturday.
The Wolverines managed just 170 total yards after their opening drive. Like they did two weeks ago against Ohio State, the Spartans caused all sorts of problems with their pressure. They followed up a nine-sack day in Columbus with seven more in this game, which is even more impressive because Robinson is usually so good at slipping away from tacklers.
But Robinson netted only 42 rushing yards on 18 carries, as he was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for 36 negative yards. Already a wobbly passer, Robinson struggled to even throw near many of his receivers in swirling winds in excess of 25 m.p.h. He completed just nine of his 24 passes and frequently was replaced on passing downs by Devin Gardner, who didn't fare much better (3-of-7 for 45 yards).
"They always want to talk about the September Heisman and how good he is, but we played well," Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. "You never want to let a guy like Denard burn you with his feet, so you try to put pressure on him to throw the ball. And when he has to throw, he's a little less accurate than he's supposed to be."
The Spartans had already proved their defensive worthiness this year. Maybe the most promising development on Saturday came on the offensive side.
In its two losses last season, and in games against Notre Dame and Ohio State this season, Michigan State became too one-dimensional because it couldn't run the ball. The offensive line features three first-year starters and lost some key contributors to injury early in the season. But the Spartans averaged 5.5 yards per carry against Michigan, and Baker repeatedly ran through big gaps on the way to his first 100-yard performance of the season.
"They were definitely more physical," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They pounded us and ate us up."
One of the offensive line's lone veterans, senior guard Joel Foreman, saw the improvement begin during Michigan State's bye week last week.
"Because of all the injuries, we had to put some new guys in there halfway through the season," Foreman said. "The bye week let the more experienced guys rest their bodies a little bit and got those young guys a lot of work. It's an amazing thing to see a young offensive line play with an edge. That usually doesn't happen."
A search party has been sent out for the second-best team in the Big Ten. Nebraska entered the season as a co-favorite along with Wisconsin, but the Cornhuskers' defense has disappointed. Michigan had sneaked up to No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll after starting 6-0, but Saturday's game exposed some serious cracks in Maize and Blue facade. Illinois, which also jumped out of the gates 6-0, didn't look so hot against Ohio State.
Well, maybe Michigan State is the second-best team in the league. Wisconsin's last regular-season loss happened here in East Lansing last year, and the Badgers come to Spartan Stadium next Saturday night. The first shots have already been fired.
"I think it's going to be the test of who plays for the Big Ten championship," Baker said.