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'Huge win': MSU rides smothering 'D' to become bowl-eligible

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

College Park, Md. — It was only a week ago that Maryland was running up and down the field, making big play after big play while piling up 712 total yards in a dismantling of Illinois.

What a difference a week makes, and what a difference it makes when the opponent happens to have one of the best defenses in the nation, one that is No. 1 against the run.

That defense, of course, was Michigan State’s, and on Saturday at Maryland Stadium, the Spartans put in as dominant a performance as they have all season, limiting Maryland to 100 total yards and just 26 on the ground in a 24-3 victory in front of a crowd full of green and white.

BOX SCORE: Michigan State 24, Maryland 3

“We worked really hard prepping for that offense because it’s different,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s a little like playing an option football team to some respects, so you have to make sure your gap is sound and your perimeter is sound and you can’t mess up because they’ll go the distance. They’ve shown that. I thought it was an outstanding job by (defensive coordinator Mike) Tressel and the defensive staff to play pretty well on the defensive side of the ball.”

The effort from Michigan State’s defense included five sacks and two forced fumbles, though one of those technically came from the offense after an interception. The 100 total yards were the fewest allowed this season by the Spartans while the 26 yards on the ground halted a Maryland offense that entered the game averaging 246.3 a game.

More: Dantonio: 'I have faith' in Brian Lewerke as starting QB

More: Heyward's career day revitalizes MSU's ground game

It also made Michigan State (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) bowl eligible for the 11th time in 12 seasons under Dantonio.

“Big win for us, huge win for us,” Dantonio said. “We stayed focused on the task at hand which was to win No. 6 which could make us bowl eligible. We’re a 6-3 football team right now, we need to march through November, which is critical for every team’s success in the Big Ten.

While the defense was dominant, the offense didn’t need to be. And on a windy day in College Park, the passing game was hindered even as junior Brian Lewerke was back as the starter after missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury. He was just 11-for-20 and had an interception.

So, for the first time this season, Michigan State was able to lean on its running attack, gaining 269 yards on the ground while sophomore Connor Heyward carried the ball 15 times for 157 yards and touchdown runs of 18 and 80 yards. It was a career-high for Heyward, who became Michigan State’s first 100-yard rusher since LJ Scott in last season’s Holiday Bowl.

“I felt like I was picking whatever hole I wanted to go to,” Heyward said. “When you get in that rhythm and that flow it felt like anything was open and you want the ball more and more.”

Michigan State got things going early with its best opening drive of the season, marching 79 yards on 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead with 7:55 left in the first quarter after Heyward scored on an 18-yard run. It was the first time the Spartans scored a touchdown on their first drive this season.

The defense, meanwhile, was forcing Maryland to go three-and-out on its first three drives.

“They are a very, very aggressive defense,” Maryland interim coach Matt Canada said. “That’s why they’ve been so good for so long. They’ve been in the top five or 10 or so in rushing defense every year for however long Coach Dantonio has been doing it. We knew that. They took some things away, there were some opportunities to make plays that you have to make when it presents itself.”

The Spartans added a 33-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to extend their lead to 10-0 with 3:32 left in the opening quarter. From there, however, the offense stalled and failed to get much going. The Terrapins were able to take advantage to an extent, getting a 23-yard field goal from Joseph Petrino with 5:13 to play in the half.

Michigan State pushed the lead to 17-3 in the third quarter when Heyward fumbled the ball near the goal line and it was recovered by fullback Max Rosenthal for the touchdown with 4:17 left in the third. It was the first touchdown of Rosenthal’s career.

“I’m not sure where that goes in the stats,” Rosenthal said. “But it still feels good.”

Early in the third quarter, the ball started bouncing wildly. First, Michigan State forced a fumble to take over at its 28, but on the next play, Lewerke threw an interception. The Spartans defense stood up again, getting a sack from Naquan Jones and forcing a punt. Lombardi came in for Lewerke but had a pass tipped and intercepted by Byron Cowart. As Cowart ran toward the end zone, MSU receiver Darrell Stewart knocked the ball loose and tight end Matt Dotson recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

“It was just being ball hungry and knowing the situation,” Stewart said. “We didn’t need another bad turnover, so felt like why not me and why not go get the ball? I stripped the ball and turned the game around.”

On the next play, Heyward broke free for an 80-yard touchdown run to put Michigan State ahead, 24-3, with 11 minutes left in the game.

“I’m really happy for our football team,” Dantonio said. “But we have to continue to get better in certain areas. We’ve got some guys still out, got to get them back. Who knows? We’ll just keep playing forward.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau