EAST LANSING, Mich. — When a University of Tulsa running back proclaimed 200 rushing yards as a reasonable goal for Friday’s game, Michigan State may have zeroed in on some bulletin-board material.
The nation’s top run defense from last season proved its mettle, helping the Hurricane establish a program record in rushing futility with a stunning negative-73 yards in a 28-7 loss to the 18th-ranked Spartans.
“Anytime someone comes into our house and says they are going to rush for 200 yards, we take that personal,” Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes said.
TU, which received a $1.2 million paycheck for the meeting at Spartan Stadium, opened the season with few fireworks and was limited to a meager 80 total yards for its lowest offensive production since 1987.
“We shot ourselves in the foot too many times, and when you let a good defense get (going) like that they’re going to pin their ears back and come at you,” quarterback Zach Smith said. “That’s exactly what we let them do.”
Making his highly anticipated debut as a transfer from Baylor, Smith got the starting nod over Seth Boomer and was 16-of-27 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Behind a shaky offensive line, he was sacked six times for 39 yards.
“We’ve got a young offensive line that a lot of those guys got their first action tonight,” TU coach Philip Montgomery said. “We’re going to learn a lot from this tape.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of protecting him. When we give him some time, I think he can make the throws and do the things that we want him to do.”
In front of a crowd of 72,005 fans at Spartan Stadium, the heavy underdogs alternated painful-to-watch offense with lights-out defense, extremely similar to many of the team’s performances in 2018. The lone touchdown surrendered by the Hurricane defense came on the first drive, when TU was trying to figure out Michigan State’s retooled offense and erred with two costly penalties on one play.
“They’ve got talented players on defense, but I’m going to tell you right now: I wouldn’t trade anybody that we’ve got on defense for anybody they’ve got on defense,” Montgomery said. “I’m very proud of what our defensive guys do, from top to bottom.”
After a first quarter with limited offensive success, the game went off the rails during a second quarter that quickly became disastrous for the Hurricane with a blocked punt, two lost fumbles, a safety and an interception.
The second fumble was the most damaging, with an unprotected Smith being lit up on the 1-yard line and the Spartans recovering the football in the end zone for a touchdown.
The veteran Hurricane defense immediately stood tall after each miscue, forcing Michigan State to settle for three field goals in the quarter and twice getting badly needed stops on fourth down. Aside from the touchdown drive, the Spartans mustered 123 yards in the first half and finished with 303 yards in the game.
With a minute left until halftime, TU had negative-22 yards in the quarter. Smith connected with Keenen Johnson for 37 yards and followed with an on-the-mark pass to Sam Crawford Jr. for a 28-yard touchdown to pull the Hurricane within 25-7, with the receiver overcoming pass interference on both plays.
In the game’s final 32 minutes, the Spartans were held to three points, the only scoring from either team after halftime. TU, having given up on the stymied run game, was committed to passing in an attempt to mount a comeback, but the sacks followed instead.
“We knew we had to throw, they knew we had to throw, and that’s putting us in situations that they were able to take advantage of,” Montgomery said. “For us, we’re going to learn a lot from it. This one game won’t define who we are throughout the season.”