Fourth-down stops prove pivotal for Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing  — In years past, when Michigan State needed a big defensive stand late in a game, former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi would often leave the coaches box and appear on the sidelines, imploring his unit to respond.

It usually worked, as it did in last season’s Cotton Bowl when Michigan State held Baylor scoreless in the fourth quarter.

On Saturday against No. 7 Oregon, the defense needed a similar stand, only this time it was on its own as Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pitt.

With the game in the balance, Michigan State produced a pair of fourth-down stops after earlier in the game coming up with a goal-line stand, all helping the Spartans to a 31-28 victory.

“Coming into this game we talked to the guys about how they'll go for it on fourth down just about at any time, so you need to expect after a third down stop to play another play,” Tressel said. “We talked about how important it is to win those 'money downs' so you can get off the field.”

The first big one came in the fourth quarter with Michigan State up 31-21. The Ducks faced a fourth-and-1 at the Michigan State 43 with just less than eight minutes to play when quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. was stuffed for no gain, turning the ball back over to Michigan State.

The Spartans offense, however, sputtered and went three-and-out. Oregon answered with a nine-play drive to cut the margin to three with 3:25 to play. The offense misfired again with another three-and-out.

But that set up the Michigan State defense for another big moment.

With Oregon facing a third-and-6 from the MSU 33, Harlon Barnett and Tressel dialed up a blitz as tackle Lawrence Thomas and linebacker Chris Frey dragged Adams down for an 11-yard loss. Adams’ pass on fourth-and-17 was off target and Michigan State had secured the win.

“As a defense, that's what we love,” linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We love it being put on our shoulders at the end of the game. That's what we practice for year-round. I knew guys were going to step up and make plays in the end, and that's what they did. I knew our offense was going to give us enough firepower and points to win, and that's what happened. It was great.”

The goal-line stand in the second quarter came with Michigan State leading 14-7.

Oregon running back Royce Freeman was stopped from the 1-yard line on two straight plays, allowing Michigan State to stay in front with a margin that lasted into the third quarter.

“I mean Michigan State did a great job,” Freeman said. “I compare them a little bit to a team like Utah — very aggressive, very feisty and looking to go towards the quarterback. Protection was key tonight. We tried to protect Vernon as much as possible, but they made it kind of difficult with the big guys they had up front.”

Although Adams did throw for 309 yards, the Spartans did sack him four times and they forced a pair of interceptions.

And while there were plays allowed in the passing game, Oregon ran for only 123 yards just a week after it gained 485 in a win over Eastern Washington.

“We did a pretty good job against the run,” Tressel said. “And on the couple runs that they hit for decent yards, we knew exactly what we did wrong. The kids knew immediately what they did wrong, it's not something we had to make corrections for. You stop the run, you always feel like your chances are good.”

And after four straight years of finishing in the top 10 nationally in total defense, this Spartans group is starting to find its rhythm.

“I think it was important for us, especially after last week,” Bullough said. “It was not our best fourth quarter (against Western Michigan) so it was important for us to go out there and make a statement. We believe we are the best defense in the country and you can’t just say those things, you have to go out and prove yourself. Even with the win we feel there are things we’ve got to get better and we’ll do that this week in practice.”