November 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Hapless Gophers give Spartans head start on bye week

A crush of Spartans buries Gophers runner Jon Hoese in the fourth quarter on Saturday. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

East Lansing— The Spartans really could use a bye week.

And as luck would have it, the Big Ten schedule maker gave them two.

Saturday, it was a date with a Minnesota team in disarray — a gopher ball, if you will. And starting today, it's a week of much-needed rest, though as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pointed out after a 31-8 win at Spartan Stadium, taking "time off" isn't quite as relaxing as it sounds.

"We'll lift (weights) Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and practice Tuesday and Thursday," Dantonio said, smiling.

But it'll be a light practice, he added. And they'll take it, just as they will Saturday's result, which probably sounds better than it looked.

"Even at 31-8 out there, I think that everyone can recognize that wasn't a 31-8 game," Dantonio said. "But the good thing is maybe when you get good enough to win 31-8 and not feel great about it walking out of here, that's a positive, too."

Running game roars back

No argument here. There wasn't much to be gained against Minnesota, a team that's playing with a depleted roster and an interim coach and hasn't won since before Labor Day. (And even then, we're talking about a season-opening triumph over Middle Tennessee State.)But after last week's 37-6 pratfall in Iowa City — "We laid an egg against Iowa, that's the bottom line," quarterback Kirk Cousins said again Saturday — there was something to be said for at least getting back on the field and playing a game.

So in that sense, this was probably the perfect time for a no-lose proposition like the Gophers, who dig their own holes so you don't have to.

Michigan State finally found some running room and opened up some breathing room — a welcome relief for a team that had been outscored 30-3 in the first quarter in Big Ten play. Edwin Baker rushed for 61 yards on the game's opening drive and punched in a pair of 1-yard runs on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter.

After that, it should've been time to do a little scoreboard-watching in the second half.

But that didn't go as planned. Iowa squeaked out a win at Indiana, and Wisconsin pulled away from Purdue, and the Spartans still are going to need some help to get to Pasadena if they win out.

Room for improvement

On the field, Dantonio's team struggled to stay on script as well, though injuries probably a role: A handful of starters were sidelined, and at least a few more played despite missing practice this week.

Still, the Spartans finished the day with just 320 yards of offense against a Minnesota team that came in ranked 105th nationally in scoring defense, 107th in run defense and 116th in pass efficiency defense.

Cousins' struggles continued, too, as he went 9-of-20 for 131 yards and an interception. He probably should've had one or two more — just as he did a week ago — and Cousins, as always, was quick to admit it.

"There's obviously plenty I need to go back and improve on," he said. "But we got the win. It was a workmanlike win. It wasn't pretty. But right now, I'm just content with getting wins and getting closer to try and win this championship."

And maybe catching up on a little sleep, no? When I asked Cousins how important the upcoming bye week is, he didn't hesitate.

"It's huge," he said. "We probably could've gotten it two weeks earlier — it would've been best. But we'll take it right now and enjoy it."

His head coach, who only returned to the sideline two weeks ago after his Sept. 19 heart attack, certainly agrees with that assessment.

"It's been a long 10 weeks, physically and emotionally," Dantonio said. "When I talk about emotionally, you're going from August all the way through now, day in and day out. There were some great wins and there was a tough loss last week and there was me off the field, I guess. So this has been an emotional, long stretch here and I think from (that) standpoint, we just need to probably get away from football for a couple days and just sort of be regular human beings."

After that, they can get back to work. But for now, they've earned a little respite.

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