Bend, don’t break. Stretch, don’t snap. Do just enough in the red zone to force a field goal and the offense will respond with points of its own. Figure out a way to get off the field, by any means necessary.
These have been the words to describe Michigan State’s defensive performance two-thirds of the way through the season and its recipe of success that kickstarted the team to an undefeated, 8-0 start.
The defense has answered the call time and time again with timely stops to set up MSU’s offense. It hasn’t been perfect or pretty, but they’ve stepped up every single game so far when needed the most. They have been the steady constant to the offense’s torrential pace game in and game out, providing stops in big moments to complement the offense.
Today, that did not happen from Michigan State’s defense.
Everything that could go wrong on that side of the ball did for the Spartans en route to a painful 40-29 defeat to Purdue. After standing strong week after week, the defense finally snapped like an old rubber band worn down from use.
After holding the ship together through two months, the defense broke and MSU’s floodgates burst open.
“We didn't make enough plays,” Tucker said following MSU’s defeat. “We didn't execute well enough to win the game. They (Purdue) outplayed us. They made more plays than we made so we gotta give them credit; they played a heck of a ball game.”
The avalanche of momentum began from the opening drive for the Boilermakers, who turned junior running back Kenneth Walker III’s first fumble of the season into a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Things did not get any better for MSU defensively, which gave up a season-high 40 points and 594 yards in the loss.
The trademark resilience from Michigan State’s defense was absent from the opening Boilermaker drive and did not make an appearance. The Spartans struggled to generate any sort of stops and consistently let Purdue convert on third downs to keep the chains moving.
Purdue converted 61.1%, or 11 of its 18 third downs for first downs today. Time and time again, fifth year quarterback Aidan O’Connell stood tall in the pocket and delivered a strike on third down to keep the drive alive. On third down today, O’Connell was 9 for 13 with 159 yards and a touchdown. O’Connell was magical on every down however, completing 40 of 54 passes for 536 yards and three touchdowns in a career-defining performance against the fifth-ranked team in the country.
Purdue converted six of its eight third downs in the first half. The Boilermakers scored three touchdowns on its five first-half possessions thanks in large part to being able to extend a drive no matter the down and distance for a first. The first third down conversion was a 13-yard completion from O’Connell to junior wide receiver Milton Wright, which kept Purdue’s scoring chances alive. Five plays later, O’Connell connected with star junior wideout David Bell for a touchdown, again on third down.
When asked about another dismal performance from the defense getting off the field on third down, senior safety Xavier Henderson had a simple explanation.
“It's the story of the season, isn't it?” Henderson said with a sense of resignation in the post game press conference.
Michigan State was able to routinely put Purdue in third and medium and third and long situations, but could not capitalize on the situation and get off the field. The Boilermakers averaged 5.4 yards needed per third down, and found that yardage more often than not.
A week after escaping by the skin of its teeth against its rivals, the same mistakes that almost brought the Spartans down against Michigan proved to be too strong to overcome in back-to-back weeks. Michigan State allowed Michigan to convert nearly 50% (8-17) of its third downs a week ago.
This week’s performance from MSU made last week’s defensive performance look like Georgia was taking the field against Michigan last weekend. Whenever Michigan State needed a timely stop today, it answered by allowing a big play and Purdue continued its drive.
The biggest of which came following Michigan State’s two-point conversion in its last-chance effort to bring the game back. After MSU cut Purdue’s lead to eight with just over five minutes remaining, the defense needed to get a quick stop.
Purdue answered by getting its final third down conversion of the game on a 10-yard completion from O’Connell to Wright, just like how it started for the Boilermakers. The 11th and final third down conversion for Purdue set up graduate student kicker Mitchell Fineran’s fourth field goal to give Purdue an insurmountable 11-point lead with 41 seconds remaining.
“We gotta evaluate what we're doing and who we're doing it with,” Tucker said about MSU’s third down defense. “And then we're gonna look at Maryland, we're going to see what they do on third down and then we'll have to make some adjustments.”
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