What went right
The Spartans had one of their best defensive performances of the season, holding Maryland to 289 yards, forcing five turnovers and recording three sacks while returning an interception for a touchdown. The only time Michigan State has allowed fewer total yards this season was when it gave up 230 in a victory at Michigan. But for a much-maligned unit that had been giving up its share of big plays, including coming off the loss to Nebraska when the Cornhuskers erased a 12-point MSU lead in less than four minutes, it was exactly the kind of game the defense needed. On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore running back Gerald Holmes continued to solidify his spot as the No. 1 back, carrying 18 times for 83 yards and scoring on a 3-yard touchdown. It was also a solid day for the special teams as they held dangerous return man William Likely in check and kicked the ball effectively. Michael Geiger was true on a 35-yard field goal and punter Jake Hartbarger was solid for the second straight week, averaging 42.4 yards with a long of 56.
What went wrong
As good as the defense was in the victory over Maryland, the offense was as sluggish. Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said exactly that after the Spartans managed to total just 262 yards, the lowest output of the season. Plenty of that was due to the shoulder injury suffered by quarterback Connor Cook, who sat out the entire second half. But he was not sharp before he got hurt and was just 6-for-20 passing. A few drops creeped in again to lead to those numbers, a notable one coming from Aaron Burbridge, who couldn’t hang on to a touch ball in the end zone in the second quarter. And as good as Holmes was running the ball, the other backs did little, including LJ Scott, who carried twice and fumbled both times. There wasn’t much to complain about defensively other than a few early deep balls allowed, and the special teams were solid outside of a failed fake field goal when a block was missed to blow up the play that looked to be set up well in the second quarter.
It’s not exactly breaking news, but Michigan State will go as far as Connor Cook will take them. That was clear when he sat out the second half with the injured shoulder. Tyler O’Connor led a couple of scoring drives and connected with Macgarrett Kings Jr. for an 10-yard touchdown, but he was just 6-for-11 with an interception while Damion Terry threw just once. A healthy Cook is vital moving forward, regardless of how confident the defense might be or the fact the kicking game has shown significant improvement.
Most telling quotes
Coach Mark Dantonio: “Connor will be all right. I don’t think there’s any sense that there’s long-term things there. … On a scale of 1-10, I’m a 9.5. 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. That’s my personal opinion. I think he was frustrated with that.”
Quarterback Connor Cook: “I thought I could’ve gone. I felt confident in my abilities and in my arm and my health. But Coach D just wanted to play it safe and keep me on the sideline for precautionary reasons.”
Co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner: “I think just overall we were very sluggish today. 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. We had a nice drive in the second half but you need to do it consistently and I don’t think we did that.”
Cornerback CB Arjen Colquhoun: “(This game) is definitely encouraging. Ohio State’s a good team and we believe we have a good team, and we’re going to go out there and compete every game. I’m glad the defense got it done. The linebackers, the d-line, the secondary, it was just great.”
Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel: “Football is so much a game of confidence. If you want to be successful, you need to be in situations where you have success and then build on it. The biggest thing, to me, was that the guys did play fast and they did play physical and they did try to dominate. That was the mentality. We leave with confidence, and that’s big.”
It’s the game Michigan State and many around the Big Ten have been pointing toward all season as the Spartans prepare to take on Ohio State. Michigan State must win to have a shot at winning the East Division and getting back to the conference title game, something they’ll also need to strengthen their resume for a playoff spot. Lose, and reaching a New Year’s Six bowl game will be difficult.