East Lansing — It might have been easy to overlook in all of the fun Michigan State was having Saturday.
In a 45-3 victory over Rutgers at Spartan Stadium, the focus was on a senior-heavy offense rolling up the yards and the points, providing another wide margin of victory for the 10th-ranked Spartans.
But just two weeks removed from one of their worst performances in the last five seasons, the Michigan State defense turned in its second straight gem. A week after holding Maryland to 6 yards rushing, it kept Rutgers out of the end zone, intercepted three passes and limited the Scarlet Knights to four third-down conversions on 14 attempts.
"It means a lot for us to be on top like this and see a performance like that," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "It really means a lot. We put a lot of emphasis on finishing plays, playing with effort and just having fun. When I was out there, I definitely felt it. I don't know how it looked, but you definitely felt the enthusiasm and guys having fun.
"You see younger guys growing. That's one thing you want to be able to do, is bring guys along with you. That's something we've done on defense, is pull guys along."
It happened again on Saturday as sophomore safety Demetrious Cox saw extensive action at cornerback, freshman Malik McDowell was a factor at tackle, sophomore linebacker Riley Bullough had an interception and redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper filled in for an injured Marcus Rush and played well at end.
Cox had four tackles, Cooper batted down a pass and McDowell had an impressive tackle for loss in the second half.
"Riley got a lot of reps today, and so did Malik," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "When you look at our defense overall, there aren't a lot of seniors. We're not going to lose much next year. We've been a good football team all year and will continue to be next year. The linebackers played well and Malik did as well. He's practiced better the last few weeks and will continue to get better as he gets more time out there on the football field."
While only three seniors — Rush, Drummond and Taiwan Jones — will be gone next year, there's the chance cornerback Trae Waynes and end Shilique Calhoun could be headed for the NFL.
But until then, the Michigan State defense has been focused on putting the Ohio State game in the past and playing like the one that made them among the best in the nation.
"We felt we were a great defense going into the Ohio State game, and then after that game we felt we took a step back," Bullough said. "So the coaches said 'We've got to get back to our identity.' and us as players wanted that too. We want to be known as a defense that can stop the run, just like they always talk about last year's defense could do. I think we've gotten back to that; we've bounced back pretty well. I think we're sitting pretty right now."