By Ashley Dunkak
The Michigan State defense did much more than simply live up to its reputation Saturday.
It took its trademark intensity, physicality and execution to an entirely new level, holding the Wolverines offense to just 168 total yards and sacking Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner seven times.
Gardner also got tackled for loss on several other plays and threw an interception. After tossing the fourth quarter pick, Gardner limped wearily to the sideline and did not return to the game.
“He got pounded a little bit,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “He was a warrior out there that last drive before the interception at the end. Did a nice job getting us down the field, had taken a lot of shots earlier in the game. Just a little bit worn out. I wouldn’t say injury. I’d say beat up.”
Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan, the leader of a young offense line that has gone through some transition this season, took responsibility for the lack of production.
“A lot of this game absolutely falls on the offensive line,” Lewan said. “They ran a bunch of blitzes, a lot of the same exact blitzes they ran in 2011, a lot of barrel crosses, a couple of corner sharks here and there, a couple will cats, but mainly barrel crosses, and when it came down to it we couldn’t pick it up, and that’s our job.”
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said the Spartans simply overwhelmed Gardner with their pressure.
“Devin’s a great football player,” Dantonio said. “He’s a guy that can create, but at the same time, everybody has weaknesses, and we look for weaknesses and try to exploit those weaknesses. They’re struggling at little bit at offensive line a little bit with some people that have gotten hurt, they’re playing younger players. Devin’s a great player. We just got him on the ground, basically.”
Linebacker Max Bullough credited the defense’s success to taking against Gardner rather than waiting for him to make the first move.
“It’s being aggressive and attacking him,” Bullough said. “When a guy like that hurts you is when you’re sitting back on your heels and worried about where he’s going to go and what he’s going to do. If you just attack him and make him go where you want to go, that’s how we’ve been successful.”
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook appreciated how dominant the Spartans defense looked. In a nutshell, it was a quarterback’s worst nightmare.
“Watching that, it was almost like Devin couldn’t even breathe,” Cook said. “Right before the Ohio State game, in 2011 when we won there, Kirk gave a talk to the whole team saying, ‘I want you guys as a defense to not let the quarterback for Ohio State breathe because I’ve had that feeling before … and there’s no worse feeling in the game of football than when you feel like you can’t breathe and the defense is just going down your throat the entire game.’
“Our defense didn’t let them breathe,” Cook concluded, “and it was just a great feeling.”
The rush defense of the Spartans looked particularly impressive. Michigan finished with -48 yards on the ground. The Wolverines averaged 40.1 points going into this game, and they could not score a single touchdown Saturday.
“They’ve got a good football team, but we’ve got a great football team,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “That happens.”