November 24, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Matt Charboneau

Michigan State's character shows through when needed most

Minneapolis — It was hard to ignore all season if you followed Michigan State football.

In fact, on Saturday, linebacker Max Bullough referred to it as the "elephant in the room."

Michigan State's offense simply hasn't gotten the job done this season. Entering its game at Minnesota, the Spartans ranked 11th in the Big Ten in scoring and ninth in total offense.

When you have one of the best defenses in the country — Michigan State is No. 1 in both scoring defense and total defense — that can lead to some tense moments in the locker room. The Spartans have done an amazing job this season of not crumbling, not pointing fingers. At no point did they become divided — the offense against the defense.

Coach Mark Dantonio talked just this week about how impressed he was that this team hasn't folded, hasn't given up out of pure frustration.

But on the eve of Saturday's game, one Michigan State had to win to avoid missing out on a bowl game when it began the season dreaming of the Rose Bowl, Bullough decided he needed to speak up.

On Friday night, in front of the entire team, he challenged the offense to get the job done.

Offense asked to step up

"I just said 'Guys we've got to put some points up,' " Bullough recalled after Michigan State became bowl eligible with a 26-10 victory. "Defense, we're going to stop them. We have confidence in that. That's what our plan is. We said that we need to get some points up on offense.

"They're not going to ignore the elephant in the room. Those guys are big guys. They know exactly what's going on, and they responded."

It was the type of response the Spartans have been desperate for all season.

There is no doubt the defense had its hand in this frustrating season. They had plenty of chances late in games to secure wins for the Spartans but came up short in virtually all of the five conference losses.

Still, the biggest issue this season has been an offense that hasn't been able to consistently put points on the board. The offense wasn't perfect against Minnesota, but it racked up 421 yards, one of its best outputs of the season.

Combine it with a defense that was once again outstanding and running back like Le'Veon Bell and his 266 rushing yards and it was exactly the type of performance Michigan State needed.

And Bullough said, much like it has been all season, there was no ill will amongst the players.

"They were thankful," he said. "They understand it. They took it like men and said 'Thank you, we needed that challenge. That's something that needed to be said to us earlier.' "

Where it eventually takes this team remains to be seen, though it at least will get one more shot this season, likely in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 29.

But one thing it continued to show was the Spartans are not lacking for character. Leaders seem to be everywhere, and Bullough is at the center.

Heart on his sleeve

He is without a doubt one of the most emotional players on the team, something that is no shock considering his Michigan State bloodlines. So it was probably fitting he was the one to step up and challenge his teammates.

He said there was no real plan, he just started talking, got excited, and before he knew it, he was on a roll.

He's also not so sure how much his speech had to do with anything on Saturday.

"Don't give credit to me," he insisted. "Those guys are still the guys doing it, I just said something."

What matters, however, is that he did say something and instead of feeling singled out, the offense simply responded.

It is no guarantee of future success. The offense still has to find better balance after quarterback Andrew Maxwell threw for only 143 yards and was intercepted twice.

But it showed a team that hasn't cracked, something that could be huge moving forward.

As defensive tackle Micajah Reynolds said, thinking of next season and the amount of players returning, "We can be great."

If that greatness comes, odds are many will be pointing to the night in Minneapolis when Bullough put feelings aside and laid it all on the line, challenging his teammates to be better.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

When linebacker Max Bullough challenged the Michigan State offense to step up, running back Le'Veon Bell responded with a career-high 266 yards rushing, including a touchdown, in the team's 26-10 victory over Minnesota Saturday. / Paul Battaglia/Associated Press