East Lansing – When there’s one game left in the season and even a bowl bid has gone out the window, it can be tough to look at the silver lining.
Still, it was there for Michigan State on Saturday after its 17-16 loss at home to No. 2 Ohio State, a game that again saw the Spartans come close but fail to get it done at the end.
However, what was clear is that the defense is starting to look a lot more like many expected it would before the season began.
“We're playing as well right now, defensively, as we have all season,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I don't think there is any question about that. We had three sacks today, we got some pressure on some other ones. … The wind plays a factor, but I think we're playing pretty well defensively, but have to be more productive. That's how you win games.”
Michigan State held Ohio State to just 310 total yards, the fewest the Buckeyes have had all season. They entered the game as the No. 1 total offense and rushing offense in the Big Ten while ranking 11th in the nation in total offense and 10th in rushing offense.
The Spartans allowed 224 yards on the ground, but 52 came on one play from running back Mike Weber, who finished with 111 yards while quarterback J.T. Barrett ran for 105.
“He is extremely athletic, so we had some things to counteract that,” linebacker Riley Bullough said of Barrett. “He had a few runs for a few yards, but I feel like we contained him for the most part. We contained the running game other than that big, long run. I think our game plan was great. I thought we executed it for the most part, we just couldn't get it done.”
Where Michigan State was especially effective was in the pass game. Barrett completed just 10 passes for 86 yards and the Spartans actually recorded three sacks after going the three previous games without one.
“We talked about it for so long and I guess guys finally got tired of hearing about it,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “This past week in practice, guys were saying, ‘Coach, I guarantee a sack.’ So it's a will and want-to thing after a while.”
It wasn’t enough to get the victory for the Spartans, but they feel like they’re headed in the right direction with so many young players getting snaps.
“There's no moral victories,” Barnett said. “We've won out here, we're champions. In our mind, we're still upset about the year and the football game. But at the same time (Ohio State) is a good football team, have a good coach and good schemes. So proud of our guys for going out there and playing hard, and again executing what was called.”
It didn’t provide the momentum swing the Spartans hoped for, but the fake punt called in the fourth quarter worked to perfection.
On fourth-and-6 from the Michigan State 38, linebacker Chris Frey took a direct snap and ran 25 yards for the first down.
“We’ve had that in for two, three weeks maybe,” Frey said. “We practiced it a lot this week and thought it was the perfect opportunity and dialed it up and it happened to be.”
Of course, nothing came of it as Michigan State was called for holding on the ensuing first down and three plays after that was forced to punt.
“Great job by (assistant coach) Mike Tressel,” Dantonio said. “I asked him, ‘Is it there?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’ So we had an alert on where we could have called it off if it wasn't there. Great execution by everyone involved and great run by Chris Frey.”
Michigan State played its second straight game without defensive tackle Malik McDowell, who sat out last week after injuring his ankle two weeks ago at Illinois.
The Spartans were also without sophomore cornerback Tyson Smith, who did not play last week, senior defensive end Gabe Sherrod and sophomore safety Matt Morrissey because of undisclosed injuries.
Several players did return after missing last week’s game against Rutgers, including senior fullback Prescott Line, senior linebacker Ed Davis, freshman defensive end Auston Robertson and freshman offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa.