Michigan State defense further establishes winning credentials in win over Rutgers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Piscataway, N.J. — It was another offensive outburst for Michigan State on Saturday.

The record were falling once again during the 11th-ranked Spartans’ 31-13 victory over Rutgers at SHI Stadium, and we’ll go through all of them shortly.

But again, almost quietly, Michigan State’s defense played just as critical a role in the victory, one that keeps the Spartans (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) unbeaten, tied atop the East Division and bowl eligible halfway through the season.

Following a similar pattern, the Spartans gave up their share of yards, but this time it was limited to the first half. Actually, it was the first quarter. Rutgers gained 126 total yards in the opening quarter and took an early 7-0 lead on a 4-yard pass from Noah Vedral to Aron Cruickshank.

Michigan State safety Angelo Grose, right, knocks the ball out of the hands of Rutgers tight end Victor Konopka during the first half of Saturday's college football game in Piscataway, N.J.

From there, the defense locked things down, forcing the Scarlet Knights to settle for field goals twice after driving inside the Michigan State 15, once after the Spartans turned the ball over at their own 13. By the second half, when redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay returned to the lineup after being forced to sit out the first half because of last week’s targeting ejection, the defense was dialed in, pitching a shutout and forcing Rutgers to turn the ball over on downs twice.

“We had a number of three-and-outs there and he plays hard,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of Haladay, who finished with four tackles, including one for loss. “He knows the defense. He knows where he's supposed to be. He can play fast and he's a tackler. It's always good when the productive players, they're able to go out there and play.

“It does matter who's out there. Any position, any team — offensively, defensively or special teams — it does matter who you're playing with. Fortunately, we were able to play multiple guys. We have more depth than we had last year. We have more guys that can go in there and be productive for us helps.”

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By the time the game ended, Michigan State had limited Rutgers to 377 total yards and knocked quarterback Vedral and wide receiver Cruickshank out of the game, as the Scarlet Knights got only one touchdown in four trips to the red zone.

“The mantra for us is keep chopping,” said safety Darius Snow, who led the Spartans with nine tackles. “Obviously the first half didn't really go how we wanted, but at the end of the day, we always just want to keep going and I think we kept building up off the intensity that the offense brought. We brought it and just kept it through the entire half.”

Record day

As for the offensive records, there were plenty to go along with some eye-popping individual plays from the likes of wide receiver Jalen Nailor and running back Kenneth Walker III.

Nailor had the best day of his career, catching five passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns. He had two 63-yard scores and added a 65-yarder on a flea flicker, the third time this season the Spartans have pulled off that play. The 221 yards for Nailor are the fourth-most in Michigan State history behind Charles Rogers (270), Plaxico Burress (255) and Andre Rison (252). It was also the most receiving yards ever at SHI Stadium, surpassing Larry Fitzgerald’s 207 while the NFL Pro Bowler was at Pittsburgh.

“I'm honored and blessed, man,” Nailor said. “Those are some tough guys to come through here and I'm just blessed to be a part of that conversation with them.”

Walker’s 94-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was not only the longest rushing play in Michigan State history, it was the longest play from scrimmage. In 1994, Tony Banks connected with Nigea Carter for a 93-yard pass against Illinois, and in 1949, Lynn Chadnois had a 90-yard run for the Spartans.

Walker finished with 233 yards rushing while quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 339 yards. Along with Nailor’s 221 receiving yards, it marked the fifth time in FBS history a quarterback threw for 300 yards, a back ran for 200 and a receiver had 200 receiving yards in the same game.

San Diego State pulled it off in 1995 with Billy Blanton (328 passing), George Jones (208 rushing) and Will Blackwell (210 receiving). In 2000, Pittsburgh’s John Thurman (332 passing), Kevan Barlow (209 rushing) and Antonio Bryant (222 receiving) pulled it off. In 2003, Wisconsin’s Jim Sorgi (380 passing), Dwayne Smith (207 rushing) and Lee Evans (258 receiving) did it against Michigan State and Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson (320 passing), Kendall Hunter (210 rushing) and Dez Bryant (235 receiving) got it done in 2008.

And for good measure, Matt Coghlin’s 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was the 72nd of his career, surpassing Brett Swenson for the most in program history.

Extra points

Redshirt freshman cornerback Marqui Lowery got his first defensive snaps for the Spartans, picking up a couple of tackles while locking down one receiver in the end zone and another when Rutgers was attempting to convert on third down.

“We were able to get him going because he had been a little banged up,” Tucker said. “Obviously, you see his ability to cover and things like that. He's got the balance and body control. He's a willing tackler. Again that's another player we have that we can play and have confidence and that can help us, help our defense, help our football team. He's been working really hard to get back and he had a good week of practice.”

… Notable players Michigan State was without on Saturday included RB Elijah Collins, DE Drew Beesley, DE Itayvion Brown and DE Jack Camper.

… Walker had his left ankle taped in the second half and said it was sore but didn’t expect it to be a problem. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch appeared to injure his shoulder in the second half but returned to the game.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau