East Lansing — Early in the week, Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough was asked if the Spartans’ defense would be up to the challenge against one of the better offenses in the nation when it faced Michigan on Saturday.
The senior captain didn't especially appreciate the question, rattling off all the offenses the Spartans had shut down already this season. He mentioned Brian Kelly and Notre Dame, the power running game at Iowa and the high-powered attack at Illinois.
Michigan State handled them all — dominated, Bullough said.
After four quarters at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, there can be no further doubt about Michigan State's defense.
In one of its most dominating performance of the past three seasons, No. 24 Michigan State held No. 23 Michigan to 168 total yards and minus-48 yard rushing while piling up seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss in a 29-6 victory in front of 76,306 at Spartan Stadium on Saturday.
"It was a great football day for Michigan State," coach Mark Dantonio said. "Defensively, we've just been dominant. (Opponents) haven't scored a touchdown in the last three weeks, so we really have been dominant. In modern football, you just don't see that very often, and that's a credit to our staff."
The last touchdown allowed by Michigan State came against Indiana on Oct. 12 and on Saturday, the Spartans held the Wolverines to their lowest rushing total ever. It showed this game was far more one-sided than the one two years ago — a 28-14 Michigan State victory — that Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan referenced early in the week when he said his team was "bullied" the last time it visited East Lansing.
"Two years ago was nothing," said Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen, who had two sacks and led the team with nine tackles. "It was a lot worse today, and I think they felt it."
Lewan couldn't argue.
"Yeah, I think that's exactly what it was," he said. "I think a lot of this game absolutely falls on this offensive line. They ran a bunch of group blitzes, a lot of the same blitzes they ran in 2011. ... when it came down to it we couldn't pick it up. That's our job."
While many of the negative rushing yards were because of the sacks and a bad snap that went 20 yards in the wrong direction for Michigan, the domination was hard to ignore. Running back Fitz Toussaint gained 20 yards on eight carries and quarterback Devin Gardner was knocked out of the game for Michigan's final drive.
"We're going to bully people — that's the game of football," Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "We didn't want any personal fouls — we had one stupid one, I think on special teams at the end — we talked really about not getting any penalties. ... They've got a good football team, but we've got a great football team."
And it's a football team that has won five of the last six meetings in the rivalry and improves to 8-1 overall and 5-0 in the Big Ten, putting a stranglehold on first place in the Legends Division with three games to play.
The Spartans have a bye next week before heading to Nebraska to play a team one game behind in the division at a stadium Michigan State has never won.
"We are just ready to take it week by week," Bullough said. "We have a bye week, and then Taylor Martinez, who has torched us the last couple years. We haven't been able to beat Nebraska. So we have another challenge ahead of us."
No. 23 Michigan (6-2, 2-2) came into the game averaging better than 445 yards a game but never got much going against the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation.
And when Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 10:31 to play in the game, it all but sealed the Wolverines' fate, one that was assured when Jeremy Langford scored on a 40-yard run with just less than three minutes to play.
"Lot of negative yardage plays," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "There were some pretty good runs once in a while in there, but when you snap the ball for a 20-yard loss and you get sacked I don't know how many times, so your yardage part of it isn't very good.
“You put yourself behind the eight ball a little bit not executing, and then you're forced into doing some things you don't want to do the whole time. It's not just the (offensive) line, there's backs involved, there's routes involved, there's timing. All of those issues are a part of it."
The biggest issue was the beating Gardner took. He was sacked seven times and knocked to the ground countless times as Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Ed Davis recorded 2.5 sacks each.
"Yeah it feels good, anytime you can press the quarterback like we did," Bullough said. "You talk about how it was a physical beat down out here. I think anyone watching or in the game would agree with you. Yeah, that is a complete game for us."
It was so complete that Michigan's best moments were limited to early in the game.
Gardner connected with Jeremy Gallon for a 35-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage, and Gardner hit Gallon two more times on the opening drive, each time for 11 yards, as the Wolverines got inside the Spartans 25. But a sack of Gardner by Allen and Calhoun on second down pushed the Wolverines back, and they settled for a 49-yard field goal from Matt Wile to take a 3-0 lead with 10:38 to play in the first quarter.
After Michigan State answered with a 40-yard field goal from Michael Geiger, the teams traded field goals again in the second quarter before the Michigan State offense started to find a rhythm and put together its best drive of the game, going 75 yards on 10 plays, taking 13-6 lead into halftime on a 14-yard pass from Cook to Bennie Fowler.
Michigan State kept its offensive momentum going to open the second half, putting together a 10-play, 46-yard drive that ended with Geiger's third field goal of the game, a 35-yarder that extended the Spartans' lead to 16-6 with just less than 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Gardner finished 14-for-27 for 210 yards, but a late interception by Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard ended any shot at a comeback.
Langford finished with 26 carries for 120 yards for the Spartans, the fourth straight week he has gone over the 100-yard mark, while Fowler caught six passes for 75 yards and Tony Lippett had five grabs for 62 yards.