East Lansing – Harlon Barnett summed things up perfectly on Saturday afternoon.
Just after No. 4 Michigan State had knocked off Air Force, 35-21, in front of 74, 211 at Spartan Stadium, the co-defensive coordinator could only shake his head and chuckle.
“Thank God,” Barnett said. “We focused on those guys from back in spring ball, in fall camp we focused on them, and of course today. Thank God we're done with Air Force. It is really a tough scheme to prepare for, especially when you don't see it on a weekly basis.”
It was the triple-option that gave Michigan State (3-0) fits as Air Force piled up 428 total yards, including 279 yards on the ground against a team that came in allowing 70.5 a game. It was even enough to make the game interesting late as the Falcons cut a 35-7 lead to 35-21.
But a couple of defensive stops late supported an outstanding day from wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and a solid outing from quarterback Connor Cook.
Burbridge, the senior receiver, caught eight passes for a career-high 156 yards and scored three touchdowns while Cook finished 15-for-23 for 247 yards and four touchdowns, matching a career best he established in 2013 against Youngstown State.
“I thought offensively, we threw the ball and had a lot of explosive plays,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Aaron Burbridge has a big game; Cook had a big game. No turnovers. We didn't hurt ourselves with many penalties. That's the positive.”
The question coming in, however, wasn’t whether the offense could move the ball. The biggest concern was how the defense would handle the Air Force offense.
The Spartans fared well in the first half and even provided the second touchdown of the game when RJ Williamson returned a fumble 64 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans a 14-0 lead just minutes after Cook hit Josiah Price on a 15-yard strike to open the scoring.
“It was a big score,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “If it's baseball it's one to nothing. We can go make it one to one.”
The Falcons gave a glimpse of how potent they could be by marching on an 11-play drive to cut it to 14-7 late in the first quarter. That was it for the first half, however, as Cook and Burbridge connected twice – once for 28 yards and another for 32 – to give the Spartans a 28-7 lead at the break.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio talks about the Spartans' win over Air Force.
Michigan State struck quickly to open the second half when Cook found Burbridge for a third time on a 21-yard touchdown pass to make it 35-7.
But Air Force battled back, hitting big chunks of yards with their option attack and eventually scoring on a 38-yard pass – just the second of the game – from Karson Roberts to Jalen Robinette midway through the third quarter.
“I don't want to say we were surprised, but they did a good job of lulling us asleep and then taking big shots,” safety Demetrious Cox said. “At times we were out of place, and they took advantage of that. We expected them to take shots after trying to lull us asleep like that.”
It was exactly the plan from the Falcons.
“We came out with a little bit of fire,” Robinette said. “We came out faster and more aggressive and we put the ball in the air a little bit too, but I think it was just our attitude and demeanor. We came out with a little more fire and energy.”
Michigan State was able to douse that fire, however, as the defense did come up with two big stops in the fourth quarter.
The first came on fourth-and-goal from the Michigan State 3 when linebacker Chris Frey stopped Robinette on a reverse. The second came with just more than five minutes to play when Williamson intercepted Roberts.
“We like to see the guys bow up down there and keep people out,” Barnett said. “It's not good for the heart though. Hopefully, that won't happen too many more times this season.”
Air Force was able to get the ball back after the Williamson interception and hit a 44-yard pass to Robinette before D.J. Johnson scored on a 3-yard run to close the scoring.
It wasn’t a touchdown the Spartans wanted to allow, but they recovered an onside kick and were happy to see the clock run out and be done with Air Force.
“It's tough, difficult,” middle linebacker Riley Bullough said. “We knew it was going to be going into this week. We started in fall camp, actually, but this week was a tough week of practice because it's so different. You have to have guys covering every single play. It's tough, but I think we weathered it a little bit. We could have played better, but, in the end, we got the win.”