EAST LANSING, MICH. – If defense wins championships, the Michigan State Spartans will soon be getting fitted for rings.
That’s not close, but the Spartans took a step in that direction with a dominating 29-6 victory over their bitter in-state rival, the Michigan Wolverines, Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
At halftime, the Spartans led just 13-6, despite holding the Wolverines to minus-41 yards rushing and despite having sacked Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner five times for 33 yards in losses.
Gardner and his teammates were holding tough, trailing 16-6 late in the third quarter, when the Spartans made what could have been a game-changing mistake.
MSU quarterback Connor Cook threw an interception that Raymon Taylor returned 17 yards to the Spartans’ 41-yard line.
This is how the Michigan drive went:
— Gardner tackled by Shilique Calhoun and Isaiah Lewis for a five-yard loss, 2nd and 15.
— Gardner sacked by Denicos Allen for a nine-yard loss, 3rd and 24.
— Gardner sacked by Allen and Ed Davis for a seven-yard loss, 4th and 31.
"I think it takes their heart away," Ed Davis said. "They think they got something going and we sack them, take them back behind the line of scrimmage. That breaks teams."
Said senior linebacker Max Bullough: "In those situations, they think they have the advantage. They think they’re going to score, it’s a momentum change for them. If we go out there and we stuff them, we keep them out of even scoring a field goal, it’s double. It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum. It’s just an opportunity for us to change the game."
That sequence not only changed the game, it defined it.
The Spartans, who as it turned out didn’t need any more points, went down and scored a touchdown on Cook’s one-yard run.
Although the point-after was blocked, it was a 22-6 lead that the Wolverines showed no signs of overcoming.
"The great thing is our defense is playing so lights-out that it wasn’t a big deal," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "It was a big deal at the time, obviously, but they held their ground."
The Spartans came into the game with the plan of attacking Gardner every chance they got.
Mission clearly accomplished.
"We definitely felt the frustration coming from him," Allen said. "Every time Gardner would get hit, he would get up with this look of frustration, kind of doubt. That’s what we went into the game planning on doing."
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard put the exclamation point on the defense’s day when he intercepted Gardner at Michigan State’s three-yard line with 6:23 left in the fourth, ending any thought of the Wolverines getting a touchdown.
"We knew if we stop him, we pretty much win the game," Dennard said. "We basically were in their backfield. Front seven did a great job stopping the run and we pretty much contained Devin Gardner."
Gardner finished 14-for-27 for 210 yards but with all the sack yardage, the Wolverines rushed for minus-48 yards.
"We came out ready to punch him in the mouth," Calhoun said. "It’s the type of defense we want to have. I feel like we were able to get back there and wreak havoc in the backfield. He understood that we were coming after him and we weren’t going to stop."
For the last drive, Shane Morris came in to replace Gardner, who had taken a beating.
"He got pounded a little bit, and he was a warrior out there that last drive before the interception at the end, and did a nice job getting us down the field," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "He had taken a lot of shots earlier in the game, and he’s a little bit worn out.
"I wouldn’t say he has an injury. I’d say beat up."
Cook had a good view of his team’s defense from the sideline.
"Just watching that, it was almost like Devin couldn’t even breathe," Cook said. "There’s no worse feeling in football than when you feel like you can’t breathe because the defense is just going down your throat the entire game.
"I think our defense didn’t let him breathe and it’s just a good feeling seeing how good our defense played."
The Spartans have not allowed a touchdown since the fourth quarter against Indiana Oct. 12.
Michigan punter Matt Wile had 327 yards punting, 159 more yards than the Wolverines had in total offense.
"Defensively, we’ve just been dominant," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. "They haven’t scored a touchdown in the last three weeks, so we really have been dominant. In modern football, you just don’t see that very often and that’s a credit to our staff, and it’s also a credit to our players, how they’re able to adjust midstream and play with confidence.
"There’s a certain amount of talent out there, but when you tack on confidence and the belief in the system and each other, great things are possible. I think we saw that today."
More great things remain possible for Michigan State but they have a bye week to enjoy their fifth victory over Michigan in the last six meetings.
"Walk the streets … but don’t burn any couches," Dantonio said.