East Lansing — Few have questioned how good Michigan State’s defense has been this season.
The Spartans have the No. 1 overall unit in the nation and are giving up only 58 yards a game on the ground, also good for best in the country.
But at times in the first half on Saturday, it looked like the Spartans were a bit out of sorts. Purdue was hitting some big plays and finished the first 30 minutes with 11 first downs and 113 total yards.
It was a peculiar sight from a defense that has dominated for much of the season.
“I thought we had an average week of practice on defense and I wish we would have been better,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “I think we have a mature defense, but when you’re playing for championships you have to come to practice every day, work hard, and come to play.”
Linebacker Denicos Allen agreed and said he didn’t see the right approach in the first half.
“I feel like a few people weren’t in the right mindset to play a Big Ten school, not just Purdue, a Big Ten school,” he said. “I think a lot of people failed to realize that it doesn’t matter what their record is, they’re still in the Big Ten. They still have the potential to beat anybody in the Big Ten, so I think the practice that we had this week carried into the first half.”
But it didn’t take long for the Spartans to turn things around and Allen was in the middle of it.
With Purdue driving into Michigan State territory early in the second quarter, linebacker Max Bullough broke free and drilled Boilermakers quarterback Danny Etling near midfield, jarring the ball loose. It bounced into Allen’s hands and he raced 45 yards for the score.
“It was great,” Allen said. “That was the first touchdown of my career. I’ve pretty much experienced every other aspect of the game, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and all that stuff, but I’d never had a touchdown and it was a great feeling. When I saw myself on the screen, I kind of glanced up to see behind me because I didn’t want to look back. I saw a lot of space behind me and figured in about 10 yards that I was in the end zone.”
It proved to be just the play Michigan State needed in its 14-0 victory. Narduzzi regrouped his unit at halftime and the Spartans allowed only 7 yards on the ground in the last two quarters and allowed just three first downs.
For the game, Michigan State’s defense matched its season highs in tackles for loss (9 for 37 yards) and sacks (5 for 27).
“His halftime speeches always get us more pumped,” Allen said of Narduzzi. “It’s like a new game when he gives a halftime speech. We realized that they were getting a lot of yards on the ground in the first half and we pride ourselves on stopping the run. We went back into the second half with the mindset that we needed to shut down the run. If we do that, then they’ll pass more and we can take advantage of that.”
The Spartans recorded their first shutout since a 44-0 win over Florida Atlantic in 2011 and their first against a Big Ten opponent since 1999 when they beat Northwestern, 34-0. It was Michigan State’s third shutout under coach Mark Dantonio.
“It’s very, very difficult to get a shutout in modern-day football, extremely hard,” Dantonio said. “It’s a big deal for our defense. I think the other thing that is really unbelievable when you look at the statistics of it all is how many football teams in America have not given up 100-yard rushing game yet this season in seven games and we’ve done that every week.”