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Strong defensive performance reassures Spartans

Tony Garcia
Special to The Detroit News

East Lansing — After a 91-yard collapse in 38 seconds ruined Michigan State’s perfect season last week in Nebraska, more questions than usual circled its defense.

Another 91-yard drive surrendered on Maryland’s second possession Saturday only heightened the angst, but two first-half interceptions — one returned for a touchdown — and five total forced turnovers settled the crowd and highlighted an impressive day from the Spartans defense in their 24-7 victory.

“The biggest thing to me is guys did play fast, they did play physical and they tried to dominate,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “And then turnovers. We leave with confidence, and that’s big.”

Mike linebacker Riley Bullough made perhaps the biggest play of the game late in the first half when he intercepted a Perry Hills pass and returned it 44 yards for the touchdown.

“I was the hot player to the short side of the field ... Just read the quarterback, made the catch down the sideline and Darian Hicks made a nice block for me so it was pretty open,” Bullough said. “We’ve got to keep getting better and keep that intensity.”

This was Hicks’ first action since he faced Rutgers and he was pleased he could make a big play.

“It was good getting back out there,” Hicks said. “It felt good. We need three-and-outs out here and for us to get three-and-outs, for us to get turnovers it’s a good feeling and we just need to carry that into next week.”

MSU has rotated defensive backs all season — generally out of necessity — but today it was by choice, and the added depth and experience was noticeable.

“It’s a fine line when you get guys who are playing well together, and gelling, you want to stick with that,” Tressel said. “But we also know that over the course of the rest of the season … we’re going to need more guys. The opportunity to get extra guys experience … you need to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said Maryland’s offense required deeper use of personnel.

“They’re (Maryland) a no-huddle football team, (next week’s opponent) Ohio State is much the same, so you know we’re going to have to roll people in there,” he said.

Spartans players said they were looking to make a statement with this game following last week’s loss at Nebraska. Members of the defense felt afterward they had done so, especially sophomore safety Montae Nicholson, who earned his starting job back this week and led the team with a game high nine tackles and an interception.

“We wanted to establish ourselves as a defense,” Nicholson said. “Going into this week, it’s a big week for us and we feel like we had to prove ourselves again.”

The Terrapins rotated three quarterbacks who completed a combined 17 of 36 pass attempts for 182 yards. It was the second-fewest yards through the air that the Michigan State defense has allowed this season. In Week 3 against Air Force it surrendered 149 yards on nine pass attempts.

It was the defense’s most complete game as a unit all season.

“We played well defensively,” Dantonio said. “You need to play well defensively, and that’s a confidence thing.”

That might be the Spartans’ biggest takeaway from the win over the Terrapins (2-8, 0-6 Big Ten).

The No. 13 Spartans (9-1, 5-1) can now focus their efforts on a game they have had circled on their calendar since a Nov. 8, 2014 loss in East Lansing — a rematch of the 2013 Big Ten championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The Buckeyes torched the Spartans last year for 568 yards of offense and a season-worst 49 points, but MSU’s best defensive performance of the year gives them some momentum.

“I believe in these guys first and foremost and they believe in each other, but there is something to having the confidence and being able to build on some momentum,” Tressel said. “Football is so much a game of confidence if you want to be successful.”

One player whose confidence was flagging coming into Saturday’s game was Arjen Colquhoun. He dropped the potential clinching interception in the end zone last week against Nebraska, but held on to one Saturday, and felt this victory was a much-needed boost.

“I needed one (interception),” Colquhoun said. “It hurt my soul a little bit last week, tight game and I could have closed it out, it hurts. Tried to make a play but it fell the wrong way and that’s football. I feel everyone was pumped up to get back out there and prove what we’re really about.”

Colquhoun’s mantra is echoed throughout the Spartans locker room.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” he said. “Ohio State is a good team but we believe we have a good team too, regardless of what people say.”

Tony Garcia is a freelance writer