Minneapolis — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wanted to see how his team would respond after last week’s win over rival Michigan and the returns were mostly positive after the Spartans beat Minnesota, 30-27, on Saturday.
Mostly positive because it was a win and Michigan State (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) remains unbeaten in conference play and has won two straight on the road. It also featured plenty of good signs on offense as the running game got going and the tailbacks led the way instead of the quarterback.
Special teams also played well and the run defense was solid. A fourth-quarter lull from the defense had some frustrated at the end, but the offense did enough to make up for it.
As the Spartans return home for a homecoming game with Indiana at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday, here are some of the key takeaways from the victory over the Gophers.
■ LJ Scott can be a difference-maker: It’s something most believed all along, especially considering the junior running back led Michigan State in rushing in each of his first two seasons and more often when it mattered most, the Spartans looked to the physical back with the potential to turn any play into an explosive one. But through the first five games this season Scott — and the entire running back corps — had trouble finding any sort of consistency behind a young offensive line. On Saturday night, Scott offered a reminder of why he can be a star, carrying the ball 25 times for 194 yards, both career highs, while adding two touchdown runs.
The fumbles continue to be a problem. After fumbling three times in the first three games, Scott lost another in the second half against Minnesota, one the Gophers turned into their first touchdown as they nearly rallied for the victory. It was a wet night and Madre London and Brian Lewerke also had fumbles, but it’s something that’s plagued Scott and doesn’t seem to be going away. To his credit, he understands it and is working on it, but with the games getting bigger the ability to protect the ball becomes critical.
■ The offensive line keeps improving: It has come in small increments this season for a group that includes two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman among its starting group. But senior center Brian Allen has been steady all season and his influence is starting to show. The Spartans managed 158 yards rushing last week against Michigan but took their biggest leap this week, running for 245 yards in the win over Minnesota. That total would have been higher if not for a 28-yard loss on a fumbled punt snap, but the numbers were impressive, nonetheless.
In addition to Scott’s 194 yards, London ran for 74 yards on 16 carries as the Spartans averaged 4.9 yards per carry. More importantly, when Michigan State wanted to chew up clock during a rainy second half, the offensive line was opening huge holes. They also continued to be effective protecting Lewerke, going a second straight game without giving up a sack.
■ That was special: There wasn’t a whole lot to talk about on special teams through the first five games outside of the consistent production from punter Jake Hartbarger. Against Minnesota, the rest of the special teams started to produce. Redshirt freshman kicker Matt Coghlin was 3-for-4 on field goals after entering the game just 2-for-3 on the season. And the return game had some life as freshman Connor Heyward took over on both punts and kickoffs and responded with a 55-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter that led to Michigan State’s final touchdown.
The Spartans also got it done late in the game as the Gophers were rallying, recovering a pair of onside kicks. Safety Khari Willis hauled in the first one while freshman receiver Cody White grabbed the second with just more than a minute to play to seal the victory.
■ Running will be tough against MSU: The Spartans entered the game third in the Big Ten and 12th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 97.2 yards a game. Michigan State held Minnesota to 74 yards on 27 carries for a 2.7-yard average on Saturday, the third time this season it has held an opponent to less than 100 yards. In the two games it did not, one came against a Western Michigan team that gained 116 yards, more than 130 yards less than it gained the week before against Southern Cal.
It’s no secret that Michigan State’s goal entering each game is to stop the run first. Sometimes, that can be easier said than done. But with the play of defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk as well as a linebacking group led by Joe Bachie in the middle with safeties David Dowell and Willis flying to the ball, the Spartans have the players now that are making the game plan become reality.
■ Gotta finish: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said it more than once after the game, he was happy with the win. And for three quarters it was essentially a game dominated by the Spartans. In the fourth quarter, however, things started to get away from the defense as Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft started to make plays, throwing three touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Not many of the defensive players were happy with the finish and Bachie called it unacceptable. It’s something that will have to get better as the games get bigger and it exposed some breakdowns in pass coverage. But the Spartans were still getting after the quarterback and got a pair of sacks in the fourth quarter. They also created a pair of turnovers, all good signs for a young defense that hopes the final 15 minutes against the Gophers proves to be the exception.