Riley Bullough missed dancing.
Bullough and the rest of the Michigan State locker room got to dance Saturday after the Spartans ended their seven-game losing streak with a 49-0 rout over Rutgers at Spartan Stadium. Two months of misery came to an emphatic end, and there was little drama in how it played out.
There will be no grading on the curve this week. Rutgers (2-8, 0-7) may be the worst team in the Big Ten, but Michigan State’s season hadn’t shown it to be much better. The Spartans took out their frustrations and took care of business against the Scarlet Knights, jumping out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and never letting up in their intensity or execution.
It had to feel good for Bullough, the senior captain and middle linebacker, and the rest of his teammates and coaches to bust a move. They deserved the moment, especially with what awaits them.
The Spartans (3-7, 1-6) host No. 5 Ohio State (9-1, 6-1) next Saturday at noon (ET) in the home finale.
Offense (5 Stars)
Senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor was an efficient 10 of 15 for 141 yards and three touchdowns, his fourth three-touchdown game of the season. He threw a nice deep ball across the field for a 50-yard touchdown to freshman Trishton Jackson, who did plenty of work to get into the end zone.
The running game produced 277 yards, including 122 yards from sophomore LJ Scott. It was Scott’s fourth 100-yard game of the season and his third in the last four games.
The offensive line not only opened the holes for the running game, it didn’t allow a sack after struggling against Illinois last week. Redshirt freshman Cole Chewins made his first career start at left tackle, while senior Kodi Kieler returned to the lineup and switched sides to start at right tackle.
The offense didn’t turn the ball over for the first time this season.
Defense (5 Stars)
This was the first shutout for Michigan State in four seasons. The last one came against Purdue, 14-0, on Oct. 19, 2013. It doesn’t matter who you play, a shutout is a shutout and something to be proud about.
Rutgers had 13 possessions, including one at the end of each half in which the clock ran out. Only twice did the Scarlet Knights reach Michigan State territory. They went three-and-out five times, punted nine times, and Michigan State intercepted two passes. The Spartans converted both turnovers into touchdowns; senior safety Demetrious Cox returned his 30 yards for his first career touchdown, while junior safety Montae Nicholson set up the final points of the game with his interception in the third quarter.
Michigan State allowed just eight first downs to a team that had been playing better the past few games under sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno. The defensive line didn’t have Malik McDowell because of injury. It started freshmen Josh King and Mike Panasiuk, redshirt freshman Raequan Williams and sophomore Robert Bowers. It did its job well. Bullough and fellow linebackers Andrew Dowell and Chris Frey shared the team lead with six tackles. That’s the way the defense is supposed to work.
Special teams (5 Stars)
Michael Geiger was a perfect 7-for-7 on extra-point attempts. That’s the kind of workload Michigan State wants to see out of him. Jake Hartbarger punted five times. This wasn’t a game where his leg needed to be much of a factor, but he helped limit Rutgers to nine yards on punt returns. The kickoff coverage unit got plenty of action and allowed just 17 yards per return. Half of Kevin Cronin’s kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Coaching (5 Stars)
Mark Dantonio has done a good job of keeping his team’s spirits up during a disappointing season, and Saturday was a just reward.
A couple things stand out about the game that point back to the coaching: better discipline with penalties and the fact that Michigan State kept building on its lead.
The Spartans had 10 penalties in the loss at Illinois last week but were flagged just five times against Rutgers. They didn’t hurt themselves in this game.
Michigan State has had leads in other games but found ways to lose. That didn’t happen this week. Instead of a 14-0 lead becoming 14-7 or 14-14 quickly, the Spartans kept their intensity and focus on both sides of the ball. They led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and 35-0 at halftime.
Overall (5 Stars)
The last time Michigan State got a win was at Notre Dame on Sept. 17. It only felt much longer. Yes, Rutgers is not a good team. But this was exactly the kind of cathartic performance Michigan State needed heading into the final two games of the season against No. 5 Ohio State and No. 10 Penn State. The Spartans were those teams last season, chasing down a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth. Now they are on the opposite side, with the chance to play spoiler. Playing, and winning, as they did against Rutgers will only help them in these games.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo