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East Lansing — For the last couple of weeks, Michigan State's coaches and players have talked about how the loss a few weeks ago to Nebraska was a blessing in disguise.

That one-point defeat that first felt like a dagger to the season, has actually sparked this team. No longer could they just show up and win, they realized.

They'd have to come with a different attitude.

That was especially true for a defense that allowed 39 points and more than 500 yards to the Cornhuskers.

It wasn't what Michigan State's defense was used to, and in the locker room after that game, co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel asked defensive end Shilique Calhoun if he was OK.

"He was a little teary eyed, but he said that it was one of the best things that could've happened to our team," Tressel recalled. "That was a mature answer. Then a whole switch changed. The guys changed from thinking we were going to be the best defense in the country because everybody was going to do their job to decide that we're going to be the best defense in the country because we're going to dominate people's tail."

It began last week in the victory over Ohio State and continued Saturday as No. 6 Michigan State rolled over Penn State, 55-16. It featured four turnovers, two of which ended up as defensive touchdowns.

"That loss might've been huge for the defense, but we did see a mentality change," Tressel said. "That was the biggest difference. There were tweaks in defense, no doubt. But the mentality change was the biggest difference."

Penn State got its share of yards on Saturday (418), but the big plays were on Michigan State's side.

The Spartans began with an interception from Arjen Colquhoun on the opening drive of the game, and late in the second quarter, safety Demetrious Cox scooped up a fumble and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown and a 20-3 MSU lead.

"It was instinct really," Cox said. "I knew I wasn't going to run out of bounds or anything like that. I was just trying to do what I had to do to get in the end zone."

It turned back a solid Penn State drive, but by the second half, there were few of those.

And after the Spartans extended their lead to 41-16 on a 6-yard touchdown run from LJ Scott, the defense struck again. This time it came when Calhoun deflected a Christian Hackenberg pass into the hands of tackle Malik McDowell, who went 13 yards for the score.

The ensuing kickoff led to the next turnover, a fumble recovered by Jermaine Edmondson. The Spartans scored on the next play.

"When something like that happens, it motivates not just the defense, but the whole team," said linebacker Riley Bullough, who had an interception return for a touchdown against Maryland. "The offense gets going from it. That's really what we try to do and that's really the only time where we're really motivating the offense. It's always good to get defensive scores, because it gets the defense and the offense pumped and sets the tone for the rest of the game."

That tone was set the first weekend in November when Michigan State lost at Nebraska. Heading into the first weekend of December, that defense feels like it's as good as it's been all season.

"I feel like it was a motivator," safety Montae Nicholson said. "It made the chip on our shoulder a little bigger again. It feels good when people doubt you and then you show them that you have something to come out and prove.

"These are all steps and goals that we had back in January. It was always win the East, win the Big Ten and then move on to the playoffs. We always had our eyes on winning this first and now we're just going to take it game by game."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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