Spartans expose Wolverines’ defensive vulnerability

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan State running back LJ Scott runs the ball in for a touchdown in the first quarter.

East Lansing  — Playing the Rutgers and Illinois of the world are good for the confidence-building of a defense.

But a team can’t play the Rutgers and Illinois every week.

Enter Michigan State.

The Spartans prepared for the annual rivalry game against Michigan coming off a five-game losing streak and as big underdogs. And still, they hung around and hung around and tested the Wolverines’ defense that had entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally in most categories.

Second-ranked Michigan won, 32-23, and learned its defense has some things to work on.

“They bent a little more than usual today, they’ll admit that,” Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight said of the Wolverines defense.

Michigan State was held to 148 yards in the first half, including 34 passing, but finished with 401. The Spartans had 253 second-half yards.

“We don’t want to have those type of lessons,” Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “If you can’t stay focused in the game, then that’s a big red flag in any game. We can’t do that. We got lucky, we definitely got lucky. We were definitely the more talented team and that’s how we won.”

The Wolverines held a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter. In their last two games against Rutgers and Illinois, the starters weren’t even playing in the fourth quarter.

“We just stopped being focused,” Lewis said. “I have no idea what it was. We stopped concentrating like we did. The third quarter was probably our best quarter.”

With a night game at Iowa and the regular-season finale at Ohio State ahead in the final month, Jabrill Peppers, who had a critical fourth-down stop late in the game, said he welcomed this test from the Spartans.

The 401 yards Michigan State gained were the most the Michigan defense has allowed all season. UCF gained 331 yards and Colorado 325 in back-to-back weeks in September.

Michigan State’s 217 rushing yards were the second-most Michigan has allowed this season behind UCF’s 275 in the second week of the season. In the last five games, Michigan opponents averaged 63.2 yards rushing.

“We definitely needed that as a defense,” Peppers said. “We definitely can’t go into Iowa playing like that. We can’t go into Maryland (next week) playing like that. We have some tough teams coming down the road. We needed this as a little wake-up call.”

Peppers said he wasn’t surprised by Michigan State’s fight.

“They’re a scrappy bunch,” he said. “Their record doesn’t show how good those guys are. We knew we were going to get their best game. We get everyone’s best game. We bend but we don’t break. We know what kind of defense we have, we’ve just got to clean up the mistakes. We can’t continue to play like that down the stretch.”

Lewis said the defense learned a lesson.

“Don’t take anyone lightly,” Lewis said. “Don’t expect anybody to lay down because Michigan State didn’t. That’s exactly what we did. We took our foot off the pedal and we let them get the momentum. That shouldn’t happen.”