Max Bullough hits Purdue quarterback Danny Etling, jarring the ball loose and right into the hands of teammate Denicos Allen, who ran it back 45 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing – There has been plenty of concern and hand-wringing about Michigan State’s offense this season, and most weeks, it’s justified.
That feeling exists again after the Spartans struggled throwing the ball in a 14-0 victory over Purdue on Saturday.
But this Michigan State team is 6-1 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten, bowl eligible for the seventh straight season and atop the Legends Division. It also has something a lot of other teams around the nation simply do not – an outstanding defense.
“Defensively we played very well after adjusting early in the game to what they were doing,” coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly teleconference on Sunday. “We threw a shutout, had the big turnover in the game when (Max) Bullough hit (Purdue quarterback Danny) Etling and it was scooped up by Denicos Allen. We had five sacks, two big plays and are really playing championship-caliber defense.”
The Spartans remain the No. 1 overall defense in the nation after Saturday’s victory, recording their first shutout since 2011 and first Big Ten shutout since 1999.
The big play Dantonio described happened in the second quarter when Bullough came free on a blitz and hit Etling on the blind side. The ball flew out of the freshman quarterback’s hands and Allen grabbed it in stride and went 45 yards for the score.
Much like victories early in the season over Western Michigan and South Florida, it was the defense that provided the scoring as the offense had trouble finding the end zone. But while Dantonio admitted the passing game must improve, he is happy with the play of the offensive line and running back Jeremy Langford. And he isn’t worrying too much when his defense continues to dominate most of its opponents.
“Usually with a football team, the focus by the media is on points scored,” he said. “We don’t get as many points scored, but really the reality is we’re playing really, really good defense and it gives us a chance in every football game to be right there.”
The Spartans are playing a style that is winning games but obviously hasn’t been too impressive to the pollsters. Despite its only loss being by four points on the road to a team also just outside of the rankings — Notre Dame — they have yet to crack the top 25 in either the Associated Press poll or the coaches’ poll.
But Dantonio is convinced those things will change of Michigan State keeps winning.
“If we win we move up, if we lose we move down,” he said. “That’s the way it seems like. We just keep playing. Our focus has to be how we handle success, be mature and get ready to go and have focus to go play Illinois. It will be a tough challenge for us and we move from there. The stakes are getting higher and higher and that’s a good thing for, an exciting thing for us.”
The Spartans could be a little thin at wide receiver heading into their matchup with the Fighting Illini. Senior Bennie Fowler did not play against Purdue after injuring his hamstring the previous week and sophomore Aaron Burbridge left the game early with an undisclosed injury.
Dantonio said neither is dealing with a long-term setback but he wouldn’t elaborate on when either would be back.
He also wouldn’t commit to who his No. 2 quarterback will be. Both senior Andrew Maxwell and redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor have been listed as the backup and when starter Connor Cook struggled against Purdue, O’Connor was warming up at one point.
“We’ll make that decision as the week progresses,” Dantonio said. “It depends on the situation in the game and really depends on that week in practice and how it transpires.”
All in all, Dantonio has very few complaints as the most crucial part of Michigan State’s schedule gets closer.
“I’m pleased with our football team for the sake that we will play,” he said. “Do I wish we were 7-0 right now? Do I think one got away from us? Yeah, I think it did. I think we were in a position to win that football game. But you can’t dwell on that and you play everything else out and move forward. We’re 3-0 in the conference and we said that was our main focus, to play our conference games and win our conference games. Everything other than that was leading up to the conference.
“Our goal is to get to that championship game at the end of the season and that’s where our goals remain. Now we transition in that direction and the next (game) is big.”