Shutout effort has Michigan State's defense 'feeling good' again

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — You won’t hear anyone around Michigan State apologizing for pitching a shutout, especially considering how this season has played out.

For one afternoon, at least, the Spartans’ defense was back to its usually dominant self, limiting Rutgers to 140 total yards, forcing a pair of turnovers, recording three sacks and holding the Scarlet Knights without a first down in the first half in Saturday's 27-0 win.

“It's always amazing, as a defensive guy, when the defense just shuts another team out,” senior linebacker Tyriq Thompson said. “Today we were able to keep them from getting any points, no field goals, and that's always a great feeling. That’s the goal going into every game. That’s the name of the game for the defense, stopping them from scoring.”

It sure didn’t hurt that it was Rutgers on the other side of the ball, a team that entered the game among the worst in the nation in most offensive categories, including 127th in scoring at 15.3 points a game.

Still, the Spartans have been on the wrong end of their share of blowouts this season, giving up huge chunks of yards and points to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan while also allowing 27 fourth-quarter points in a loss to Illinois.

So you better believe they were pushing for keeping the Scarlet Knights off the scoreboard.

“Man, it was it was real good to get that shutout,” sophomore safety Xavier Henderson said. “We were talking about it throughout the day. We were feeling good, feeling good in the second half and in the fourth quarter we came out like, ‘Let's do this. Let's get the shutout.’

“We've talked about it. We gave up a lot of points in the second quarter and in the fourth quarter. So, we wanted to make a point today by getting that shutout, especially in the fourth quarter.”

Rutgers quarterback Johnny Langan (17) is sacked by Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) and linebacker Noah Harvey (45) during the second half  on Saturday.

The Spartans got a bit of a break in the fourth quarter when Rutgers had a field goal wiped out by a holding call, but the performance was still impressive.

Rutgers' 140 total yards is bested only by the 80 total yards Michigan State allowed in the opener against Tulsa. While the Scarlet Knights did gain 83 yards on the ground, they only had 57 yards through the air, the fewest Michigan State has allowed all season.

Add in the 15-minute disparity in time of possession and the fact Rutgers was 0-for-11 on third down, and it was a defensive performance the Spartans were desperate for.

“Guys just kept fighting, just keep fighting,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “In the second half they were able to get a few first downs on us, but late in the drives we were able to keep fighting and stay hungry. We were able to stop them and hold them to zero points.”

Tripped up

Henderson knew the moment he hit the ground he was going to hear it from his teammates.

The safety had just intercepted a pass from Rutgers quarterback Johnny Langan near the Rutgers' 47-yard line and was racing down the sidelines with what looked like a clear path to the end zone.

Then, Henderson tumbled to the turf at the 15.

“Yeah, I should have scored,” Henderson sheepishly said after the game. “I tried to blame Josiah (Scott). I said he tackled me from behind, but really as I watched it again afterwards I just kind of fell. I saw the quarterback was running and the running back had a good angle on me so I wanted to cut it back and I just tripped. I tripped over my own feet.

“I definitely tried to blame Josiah, but they'll see on the film it was definitely my fault.”

Even with the stumble, it was a good game for Henderson. He led Michigan State with nine tackles, a career high.

No return

Michigan State earned the shutout with Thompson starting at middle linebacker a week after Simmons started in the middle. The moves have been necessary ever since senior Joe Bachie was suspended between the Penn State and Illinois games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.

On Saturday, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio confirmed Bachie’s appeal of that suspension had been denied, meaning Bachie’s career at Michigan State is over with just one regular-season game and potentially a bowl game remaining.

Extra points

Michigan State has now played 15 true freshman this season after walk-on receiver Cade McDonald saw action late in the fourth quarter and linebacker Marcel Lewis also played for the first time this season.

The 15 true freshmen are the most Dantonio has played in a season. On Saturday, four started on offense, led by center Nick Samac, left guard J.D. Duplain and wide receiver Julian Barnett. It was the first career start for left tackle Devonte Dobbs.

It was Samac’s fifth game, meaning he has burned his redshirt, something Barnett and Duplain had already done. Dobbs played in his fourth game. One more game and he’ll lose his redshirt, as well.

… Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Nailor returned to the starting lineup and had a career-high five catches.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau