College Park, Md. — A week ago, the Michigan State defense was a beaten unit, giving up 49 points and more than 500 yards in a deflating loss to Ohio State.
All week, as No. 12 Michigan State prepared to face Maryland, the talk was about "getting up off the mat." And that was directed squarely at a defense that has spent the better part of the last four seasons being dominant.
And while Saturday's opponent was not on par with last week's, the Michigan State defense walked away with a bit of its swagger back after a 37-15 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 51,802 at Byrd Stadium.
"I am very impressed," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said of his defense. "I knew we would bounce back. Last week was uncharacteristic of us and what we have done. Tonight we played much, much better.
"When you get that type of performance from you defense — four turnovers with one going for a touchdown — it's tough to lose a football game."
Michigan State (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) held Maryland to 252 total yards and just six yards rushing. It also had three sacks, intercepted three passes and held Maryland to 2-for-13 on third downs. And when the Spartans offense was scuffling, it was the defense that provided a spark, the biggest coming in the third quarter.
That's when junior safety RJ Williamson intercepted a pass deflected by linebacker Taiwan Jones and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown to give Michigan State a 23-7 lead.
"It was a great read by Taiwan Jones and some great pressure (on the quarterback) by Malik McDowell," Williamson said. "Basically it was just a gimme. All the credit goes to those guys. I just happened to be there to make the play."
The play was far more a picture of what Michigan State has accomplished over the past few seasons than last week. And with two games left in the regular season and another 10-win season still a possibility, getting the defense back on track was a significant goal.
"We just wanted to come out here and redefine ourselves," Williamson said. "Last week wasn't Spartan football. We owed it to our fans, we owed it to ourselves and wanted to come out here and play with a chip on our shoulders. They were 2-for-13 on third downs — that's the way Spartan football is. Credit goes to the coaches for a great game plan and the guys carried it out."
As impressive as the defense was, the offense was out of sync most of the game.
"We didn't get the running game going as quickly as we needed to," left tackle Jack Conklin said. "We were able to finish strong but we've got to come out hard. We rebounded, got after it, and finished strong."
In the first half, the Spartans moved the ball well but had to settle for three Michael Geiger field goals. He tried a fourth in the second quarter that came up short from 47 yards. But the offense did get a spark late in the half when Keith Mumphery caught a pass, broke a tackle and raced 62 yards to the Maryland 3. After a Michigan State penalty, Jeremy Langford scored from eight yards out.
It was the first of two scores for Langford, who added a 25-yarder in the fourth quarter. The senior running back finished with 138 yards, the 14th straight game he's rushed for 100 or more yards against a Big Ten opponent. Connor Cook was inconsistent and finished 14-for-31 for 240 yards.
"Offensively we struggled a little bit by not converting touchdowns," Dantonio said. "I was pleased we were winning (in the first half). I was not pleased with the performance in terms of production. But Michael Geiger hits his first three field goals and it's a big team win."
The Terrapins (6-4, 3-3) were able to pad the passing stats late in the fourth quarter and cut into the Michigan State lead when C.J. Brown hit Juwann Winfree for a 31-yard touchdown pass. It was Brown's second touchdown pass, his first coming in the second quarter on a 20-yard pass to Daniel Adams.
"We knew coming in we were going to have to throw the football," Brown said. "The way we started off and I threw that pick, but we were able to bounce back. But that last one for the pick-six, that one really hurt. I can't make that read. I can't make that decision and put our defense in that situation."
Maryland added the two-point conversion on its final touchdown but an onside kick failed and Michigan State put the final touches on the scoring when Nick Hill broke a 33-yard run for a touchdown with 3:15 to play.
"They beat us up front," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "We knew it was going to be tough to run. That's the thing they predicate their defense on, put a lot of guys in the box and do that. We knew it was going to be tough to run and we knew we were going to have to get some plays in the passing game.
"We turned the ball over four times. You can't do that against a top-15 team and expect to win."