MSU still on championship pace despite sloppy win
East Lansing – Michigan State hasn’t done anything easily all season.
But as coach Mark Dantonio pointed out following Saturday’s 24-7 victory over Maryland at Spartan Stadium, the Spartans are exactly where they need to be heading into the final two games of the regular season.
“Great job by our football team getting to nine wins,” Dantonio said. “That was the goal coming into the football game. We needed to focus on the moment and get that particular W.”
It didn’t come without a price. Quarterback Connor Cook injured his right shoulder late in the first quarter and sat out the entire second half. He said he’d be fine to play next week at Ohio State, a game that could very well determine the champion of the Big Ten East Division.
It’s a storyline that will no doubt dominate the week, but Dantonio is confident he’ll have his star quarterback for the biggest game of the year for No. 14 Michigan State (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten.)
“On a scale of 1-10, I'm a 9.5,” Dantonio said about whether Cook would play against OSU. “I'm pretty confident in him. I think if we would have chosen to run the football, he could have hung in there. I just don't think he had the velocity on his ball that he usually has and I think that was bothering him. I think he was frustrated with that.
“You take them as they come, and we're a 9-1 team, so that's the bottom line. It's important we got back up, we came out energized, we maintained that energy throughout and we played hard, and that's all I can ever ask for.”
It was a solid bounce back for the defense after last week’s loss at Nebraska. The Spartans forced five Maryland turnovers, the first three leading to Michigan State scores.
The first came after a Maryland fumble in the first drive of the game, and Michigan State responded by going 50 yards with backup quarterback Tyler O’Connor hitting Macgarrett Kings Jr. with an 11-yard strike with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
Maryland (2-8, 0-6) answered quickly, hitting the Spartans with a 37-yard pass from Perry Hills to Levern Jacobs to open its next drive that started at its own 9, then efficiently moving down the field before Brandon Ross scored on a 1-yard run with 4:23 left in the first quarter.
But the turnovers returned with Riley Bullough intercepting a pass and returning it 44 yards for a touchdown to put Michigan State up 14-7, and Arjen Colquhoun followed with an interception that led to a 35-yard field goal by Michael Geiger on the final play of the half, putting the Spartans up 17-7 heading into the locker room.
“A lot of things were happening at that point,” Bullough said. “I was the hot player on the short side of the field so I didn't have as much field to work it. I read the quarterback, made the catch down the sideline and Darian Hicks made a great block for me, so I was pretty open. Just tried to get in the end zone.”
The Bullough interception was critical, considering Maryland never really threatened to score the rest of the game.
“I would say any turnover that we had was critical because we have very little margin for error,” Maryland interim coach Mike Locksley said. “We have to keep working with those guys to not turn it over and give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame. Today we didn't do that.”
Gerald Holmes, who ran for 83 yards on 18 carries for Michigan State, added a 3-yard touchdown run in the third quarter as neither team could get much going offensively from that point.
The Spartans had little rhythm offensively. Cook, O’Connor and Damion Terry combined to complete just 12-of-32 passes for 121 yards and Michigan State wasted good field position throughout the game.
The Spartans started drives in Maryland territory five times and at the 50 twice. Only 10 points came from those drives, the touchdown to Kings in the first quarter and Geiger’s field goal to close the first half.
At one point in the second quarter, Michigan State had four straight drives that began at no worse than the 50 and couldn’t score, turning it over three straight times and punting once.
“I think just overall we were very sluggish today,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We didn't start very well, obviously. We scored early but then we went on a drought. Defense played great and got us the ball on the plus-side of the 50-yard line in the first half and we really did nothing with it."
The flip side to the offensive struggles was the play of Michigan State’s defense. It held Maryland to 289 total yards in addition to the five turnovers as Montae Nicholson provided the third interception.
It’s the performance the much-maligned defense has been looking for all season and comes just as the biggest game of the year is on tap.
“I've always believed in these guys, first and foremost, and they believe in each other,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “But there is something in having confidence and being able to build on some momentum. I thought our defensive front really stepped it up. You look out there on the field and it seemed like they were in their backfield. We talked about playing on their side of the line of scrimmage today and I thought we did that. If we can eliminate a few offsides I think we'll be ready to roll.”