East Lansing — For the past two weeks, all the talk surrounding Michigan State’s struggling offense had subsided.
The Spartans won two straight to open Big Ten play and did so behind an offense that was suddenly finding its way, making big plays and seeing its passing attack grow exponentially from the way it played in the nonconference season.
Connor Cook was getting comfortable as the Spartans’ starting quarterback and the receivers were playing as well as they had since before last season. On top of that, the running game, which had been solid all season, was rolling along and the offensive line was playing outstanding.
It seemed the production would only continue Saturday with Purdue in town to face the Spartans. But as the old cliché goes, that’s why they play the game.
And that’s why Michigan State had to revert to its old formula — rely on its defense.
It did just that in a 14-0 victory over Purdue in front of an announced crowd of 71,514 at Spartan Stadium as linebacker Denicos Allen returned a fumble 45 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to spark the victory.
It was the only score of the game until Michigan State — which didn’t get inside the Purdue 38-yard line until the fourth quarter — was able to put together its first solid offensive drive, icing the game on a 5-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Tony Lippett to tight end Andrew Gleichert on a reverse pass.
“Well, we won the football game and I’m never going to apologize for winning,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s a step forward. It’s not a step back. A step back is when you lose. It’s a step forward. There are plenty of people that take a step back and usually have an ‘L’ beside it.
“So we’re 6-1. You can cut it any way you want. We can sit there and say, we’re not in the top 25. We can moan and groan about it, or we can stay focused and do something about it.”
The win keeps Michigan State (6-1, 3-0 Big Ten) atop the Legends Division and made the Spartans bowl eligible, something they didn’t achieve until the final game of the regular season last year.
But this team has much higher expectations, which made the offense’s play all the more disappointing. Cook finished just 13-for-25 for 107 yards, but entering the final two drives of the game, he had thrown for only 33 yards and appeared on the verge of being lifted from the game.
Before Michigan State’s nine-play touchdown drive, backup Tyler O’Connor was warming up on the sidelines and taking snaps from center Travis Jackson. Dantonio admitted he considered making the move, but decided to ride Cook for another series.
“There was a little bit of thought, I’ll be honest with everybody, because as we move forward you have to win the football game,” Dantonio said. “I wanted to stay with Connor Cook. I forced that issue a little bit. You never say never, I think that’s just part of competition.
“He played well that last series. We kept him in and he played well. He took us down the field and scored, which was big. When you come in fresh off the sideline, it’s difficult. We’ve been down that road before.”
The decision to stick with Cook paid off with the score as he connected on passes of 18, 25 and 26 yards.
“I wasn’t really stepping into my throws and I could have been a lot more accurate,” Cook said. “The best thing is we finished strong, came together as a group at the end and ran the ball great the whole game. Our offensive line — no surprise — did another amazing job and have been doing a great job all season long. We came together and finished strong, that’s what matters.”
It also matters that Cook feels far different than he did against Notre Dame when Andrew Maxwell came on for the final drive.
“I saw (O’Connor) warming up and stuff,” Cook said. “But I know it means the coaches believe in me and they continue to believe I’m the guy and have faith in me. So that reassures me.”
While Cook might be reassured, the offense’s performance — at least in the passing game — can’t be reassuring to many.
“It was very disappointing,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We talked all week about not being satisfied with a couple good performances and the need to take it to the next level and step forward and we didn’t do that today. We’ll keep working on it, we’ll be OK.”
As much as the passing game struggled, the running game continued to be a strength for the Spartans. Jeremy Langford carried 24 times for a career-best 131 yards, the second straight game he’s gone over 100 yards.
And the defense was outstanding in the second half, allowing just three first downs after giving up 11 in the first half. The Spartans allowed just 66 yards on the ground and held the Boilermakers (1-6, 0-3) to 226 total yards, including minus-5 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We haven’t been able to finish drives all season long, and that was the case again today,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. “We’d get a penalty or a loss-yardage play on first down and then all of a sudden, we’re second-and-12, second-and-13, and it’s hard to overcome some of those as a young football team right now. But we need to be able to finish those drives better.”
Michigan State heads to Illinois next week with a chance to head into a difficult November in the driver’s seat in the Legends.
“Hopefully, our football team is maturing as we move forward,” Dantonio said. “We’re understanding that nothing is easy and we mature and we grow. With every game we grow. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to have success, but we grow with that. That’s reality and if you’re able to do that, you’re going to have a good football team.”