Unit helps MSU avoid costly loss versus Purdue
Just when the Spartans began looking like a complete team and potential Legends Division frontrunner, they struggled to put away a flawed Purdue team and a wave of uncertainty comes crashing back.
The MSU defense did the heavy lifting – producing a shutout and a touchdown – while its offense struggled to move the ball once again in a 14-0 win over the Boilermakers (1-6 overall, 0-3 Big Ten).
Leading up to Saturday, head coach Mark Dantonio talked about whether his team would be able to handle its recent success after back-to-back impressive wins against Iowa and Indiana. By midgame, though, the question shifted to whether the Spartans could achieve success at all against a massive underdog.
Purdue’s other five losses this season came by an average margin of more than 28 points.
MSU (6-1, 3-0) clung to a 7-0 lead on senior linebacker Denicos Allen’s 45-yard fumble return in the second quarter and survived a pair of missed Boilermaker field goals before its offense got on the board with 8:55 left in the game.
Dantonio isn’t concerned about his team regressing, calling the win a step forward despite the ugly offensive performance and lackluster numbers.
“All that matters is that one statistic: Did you win or did you lose?” Dantonio said. “And that’s what we have to focus on. We’ve got a lot of happy people in the locker room right now because we won one and it was relatively close, but we won it.”
Junior running back Jeremy Langford’s career-best 131 rushing yards were the lone bright spot from a unit that amassed 294 total yards.
With senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler unavailable due to a tweaked hamstring and sophomore receiver Aaron Burbridge leaving midgame with an injury, the passing game struggled, as sophomore quarterback Connor Cook finished with 107 yards on 13 completions.
The Spartans received the opening kick and came out punching, running Langford three straight times for 30 yards while utilizing some unbalanced formations with extra offensive linemen in the game. Freshman receiver R.J. Shelton was dropped for a loss, though, and Cook misfired on a third-down pass to stall a promising drive.
The next two and a half quarters were spent trying to regain the spark of that first drive, and MSU didn’t find solid footing until the end of the fourth period.
“It’s very disappointing, because … we talked all week about not being satisfied with a couple good weeks,” said Dave Warner, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. “We talked about taking it to the next level, taking a step forward and we didn’t do that today for various reasons.”
Senior safety Isaiah Lewis snagged his first interception of the season to end Purdue’s second drive of the day with an outstanding over-the-shoulder grab on the back line of the end zone.
MSU forced another turnover from Purdue freshman quarterback Danny Etling on the next possession when he was flattened by senior linebacker Max Bullough on a blitz, popping the ball free for Allen to dash into the end zone.
Early in the third quarter, the Spartans were threatening on the Purdue 37-yard line when they tried to set up a screen play for Shelton on third down. The Boilermakers weren’t fooled, though, and Cook made a poor decision to throw it into heavy coverage anyway, resulting in a 6-yard loss that moved MSU out of field goal range.
At least briefly, Dantonio pondered replacing Cook with redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor during the game, he revealed afterward.
“There was a little bit of a thought, I’ll be honest with everybody, because as we move forward I think you have to win the football game,” he said. “But I wanted to stay with Connor Cook so we’ll force that issue a little bit farther. But you never say never, I think that’s part of competition.”
The Spartans’ single offensive score was the product of a nine play, 73-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Junior wide receiver Tony Lippett capped their best series of the day by taking a reverse from Cook and throwing junior tight end Andrew Gleichert his first career touchdown.
Facing a two-touchdown deficit, Purdue went three-and-out on its next possession, allowing MSU to maintain possession and bleed the final 6:40 on the clock.
“I think we could have scored more, but we didn’t,” Langford said.
“At the end of the day we got the win, that’s the most important part of playing a Big Ten team is win.”