EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mark Dantonio is a defensive coach’s defensive coach. He has been the main man for Michigan State football the last 10 seasons but he’s always got the defensive side of the ball in his blood. It’s how he made his name as an assistant coach. It’s the characteristic for which his teams have always been best known.
Dantonio understands the value of a shutout is more than just the zero on the scoreboard. That value is even greater when it comes in a season like the one Michigan State is enduring. The Spartans ended their seven-game losing streak in emphatic fashion Saturday, 49-0 against Rutgers at Spartan Stadium.
Rutgers isn’t exactly the best team around but you never take a shutout for granted. They are too rare a commodity in this era of video game football played on actual fields.
This was the first shutout for Michigan State in four seasons. The last one came on Oct. 19, 2013 against Purdue, 14-0, in a game that featured a 45-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Denicos Allen.
“It’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Dantonio said. “It’s a big deal because everybody has players, and this is a team that’s been playing well the past couple of weeks. Rutgers took Indiana to the end, Minnesota with that last second kick, and they played Iowa 14-7. So, they’ve had their ups-and-downs obviously, but they had the ability of coming in to play us and play us very close as every other team has done.
“As a defensive coach, you get a shutout that’s big. We needed it. We needed things to go in our direction just once, go in our direction totally.”
It totally did.
Michigan State was allowing 30.1 points per game and 384 yards per game entering Saturday, both the most of any team in the Dantonio era. Those numbers are down to 27.1 points and 360.5 yards per game. They’re still high (the points are the most in the Dantonio era) but this game was a sign of progress.
Six starters on defense were either freshmen or sophomores, including true freshmen linemen Josh King and Mike Panasiuk and true freshman CB Justin Layne.
“I think they did a good job,” said senior MLB Riley Bullough, who had six tackles to tie junior LB Chris Frey and sophomore LB Andrew Dowell for the team lead. “I feel like the guys that are out there, I can count on them to have my back because I’ve got their back. That’s important for a defense to have that trust. I feel like the guys did a good job today. The energy and everything like that was good.”
The defense forced five straight three-and-outs last week at Illinois and eight over 12 possessions. Those other four possessions, however, all resulted in touchdowns for the Illini, including scoring drives in the final two minutes of the first half and regulation that proved crucial in a 31-27 loss.
Michigan State carried a lot of frustration into this game because of that inconsistency.
“That killed us,” Frey said. “If they get a first down, we need to group and regather and say it’s just one first down. We need to pick it up because they’re not getting another one.”
Rutgers got just eight first downs all game. The Scarlet Knights had 13 possessions; nine ended in punts, two finished as the clock ran out at the end of the first half and regulation, and two others were Michigan State interceptions. Senior S Demetrious Cox returned a pick 30 yards for a touchdown that gave the Spartans a 14-0 lead less than six minutes into the game.
Junior S Montae Nicholson intercepted a pass in the third quarter and returned it 10 yards to the Rutgers 45 to set up what proved to be the final touchdown of the game for Michigan State.
“It’s always awesome for a defense to get a shutout,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “It’s good for the players to hold an opponent scoreless. It makes everybody’s confidence go up and all those types of things, but it’s hard to do in college football. I don’t care who you’re playing against.
“So, credit to the players for busting their butts and getting it done, understanding the game plan, and executing the game plan the entire game.”
Michigan State feels good about itself on a Saturday for the first time in two months because it did what it felt it should have been doing all season. Maybe that’s unrealistic given how many inexperienced players the Spartans have, but that’s the price of winning with the consistency they have under Dantonio.
Shutting out Rutgers might not mean a thing when it comes to playing Ohio State and Penn State in the final two games of the season, but don’t say it means nothing.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo