Henning: Crushing 'D' remains MSU's go-to winning recipe

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

East Lansing — None other than Mark Dantonio, a coach who played, coordinated, and most appreciates defense, thought Saturday night's colossus between Michigan State and Oregon might turn into a six-gun shootout at Spartan Stadium.

It did, sort of.

Michigan State beat Oregon, 31-28, in a college football dogfight that was watched on ABC-TV by millions from sea to sea and was particularly enjoyed by most of the 76,526 who stacked MSU's green-and-white-laced stadium on a lovely near-autumn evening in East Lansing.

But for all the points, for all the big plays, for all the laser-light passes completed by MSU's Connor Cook, and later by Ducks sharpshooter Vernon Adams, it was Dantonio's football favorite, defense, that won a signature game for the Spartans.

There was a goal-line stop of the Ducks in the second quarter, with Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, Lawrence Thomas, Jon Reschke and who-knows-how-many-others saving MSU's 14-7 lead the Spartans would carry into halftime's situation room.

There was a fourth-down stop of Adams midway through the fourth quarter that led to a measurement, and a replay of the spot at which the ball was placed, and finally turned the ball over to the Spartans as they began to get comfortable with what was then a 10-point lead over the speedy, skilled Ducks, a team that gleamed in its white helmets and ensembles, and at various times messed up the Spartans in just about every facet of the game.

And then, finally, there was the play with just under two minutes to go.

Sack attack

But set the stage for this brilliant finish, the kind of grand finale that so often in MSU football history — pre-Dantonio — would have gone another way.

The Ducks had already cut MSU's lead to 31-28 with 3:25 to go on an Adams touchdown pass that was part of a nine-play, 80-yard drive against what appeared to be a gassed gang of Spartans defenders.

Dantonio's offense, which was more than helpful for much of Saturday, melted down on its next possession — three plays that ended as fast as a camera shutter clicks.

The Ducks took over with 2:13 showing and pushed to MSU's 33 and to a third-and-6 chore that had been no big deal, at least late Saturday, for Adams and Co.

Adams dropped back and was soon being chased by a handful of MSU assault specialists. He ran. He retreated. And he was crumpled by Chris Frey and Lawrence Thomas for an 11-yard loss that knocked the Ducks into a fourth-and-17 ditch from which the Ducks weren't moving.

Not, anyway, by a Dantonio team that has made defense its primary DNA strain during the Spartans' football renaissance.

Adams flung a no-chance pass on fourth-and-forever that fell to the green turf and MSU was left to chew up the final seconds of a clock, and a game, that belonged to Michigan State and to the land's No. 5-ranked team.

Work remains

The Spartans were not particularly distinguished. They had 389 yards in total offense, the Ducks had 432.

Cook threw for 192 yards to 309 by Adams. The Spartans got 197 yards on the ground, Oregon had 123.

The Spartans also had a couple of interceptions early on Adams that figured mightily. They avoided penalties until picking up a couple during Oregon's late rally.

On the flip side, they too many times tackled shoddily on special teams.

But just when a game that could have gotten away and could have ruined their 2015 dream began to slip away, there was Adams, trying to slip free from a couple of sharp-clawed Spartans who weren't going to let this night belong to anyone but Michigan State. To a town, and a university, and a fans galaxy that had yet another reason Saturday to go to bed happy, at peace with its increasingly splendid football product.