Connor Cook runs for a first down against Purdue. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — In the minutes following Michigan State’s 14-0 victory over Purdue last weekend, Mark Dantonio bristled at the suggestion his team took a step in the wrong direction.
“It’s a step forward, not a step back,” he said after the Spartans managed 112 yards passing, 79 on the final two drives. “A step back is when you lose.”
But during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Dantonio softened a bit on the idea.
“Did we take a step back this last week?” he asked. “Probably. In some cases we did, in other cases, even offensively, in other cases we took a step forward.”
There is little debate the passing game was not one of those cases as quarterback Connor Cook, coming off two straight impressive performances, was 13-for-25 and as inaccurate as he has been in weeks. Entering the fourth quarter, he was 9-for-19 for 33 yards.
With backup Tyler O’Connor warming up on the sidelines, however, Cook led the Spartans to their two best drives. The first ended when receiver Tony Lippett threw a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Andrew Gleichert on a reverse-pass and the second chewed up what was left of the clock.
That final drive highlighted what has truly been the bright spot for Michigan State’s offense — the running game.
Jeremy Langford carried 24 times for a career-best 131 yards, the second consecutive week he went over the 100-yard mark, and the Spartans rank sixth in the Big Ten (186.1 yards).
“There are positives that we can look at in every respect, and there’s also going to be negatives,” Dantonio said. “We got a shutout, first time since ’99. Did we play our best defensive game? Probably not.
“So it just depends on how we look at it and what we have to do, but that’s why we’re coaching and we’re just going to try and identify problems and solve those problems as we move through the process here.”
Michigan State is heading to Illinois on Saturday as a double-digit favorite, but will need to continue to run the ball well while improving its passing game. That appears likely as Illinois allows more than 454 yards (11th, Big Ten) and 32.3 points.
Illinois also allows 211 yards rushing.
Purdue, however, ranks near the bottom, as well, and held Michigan State to one offensive touchdown.
The difference was the Michigan State defense. It allowed Purdue to run the ball early, but adjusted to shut the Boilermakers down and record the first Spartans shutout since 2011 and the first in conference since 1999.
Dantonio, however, wants to see more.
“We have to play better to improve,” he said. “We need to be playing our best football as we get into November. If you’re going to go to the championship game, which that’s our goal, and win the championship, which that’s our goal, then you’d better be playing your best football towards the end.”
It’s the best scenario for Michigan State, which faces Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern in consecutive weeks to begin November before closing at home against Minnesota.
“I know what we have to do to win, and so we have to play things close to the vest,” Dantonio said. “If we have to win 13-10, that’s what we do. If we have to win 43-40, that’s what we’ll do.”