EAST LANSING, MICH. – The statistics said one thing Saturday. The scoreboard said something else.
The Gophers played right with No. 11 Michigan State, just as they had played right with then-No. 16 Wisconsin one week earlier.
But another strong Gophers defensive effort went to waste, as Michigan State finished off a 14-3 victory before an announced crowd of 71,418 at Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans, who face Ohio State next Saturday in the Big Ten title game, scored a touchdown on their first drive of each half and relied on one of the nation’s top defenses to do the rest.
Three trips to the red zone resulted in only three points for the Gophers (8-4, 4-4 Big Ten), who have now played 10 consecutive quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown.
“Our kids — I’m very proud of every single one of them,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “I thought we played hard. Defensively, we really played good, and offensively we moved the ball. We just didn’t finish drives, and that happens sometimes.”
Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) has been doing this to teams all season. This marked the sixth game the Spartans haven’t given up a touchdown, against a list of opponents that includes South Florida, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern.
The Gophers saw a tough defense in last week’s 20-7 loss to Wisconsin. The Spartans came in leading the nation in total defense (236.6 yards per game) and rushing defense (59.4 yards per game).
The Gophers gained 249 total yards against the Spartans and rushed for 125. Cobb overcame a lacerated right knee to rush 27 times for 101 yards, becoming the only running back besides Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans this year.
Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson completed only six of 18 passes for 77 yards and threw his first two interceptions since Sept. 28. He left the game in the fourth quarter because of a possible concussion.
But the Gophers still had chances. They had second-and-goal from the Michigan State 1 in the second quarter before Denicos Allen stuffed Cobb for a 2-yard loss.
On third down, Nelson threw a pass toward a wide-open Drew Goodger in the end zone, but nose tackle Mark Scarpinato swatted it down, forcing a field goal.
“I think we’re playing two very good defenses,” Kill said of the team’s 10-quarter offensive drought. “But a lot of it has to do with execution, and I think as coaches, we take responsibility. We’ve got to continue to do better and put them in better spots.”
Michigan State came in leading the Big Ten in average time of possession, at 34 minutes, 38 seconds. This time, the Gophers held the ball for 38:41, compared to 21:19 for the Spartans.
“There was a reason the game seemed so close — they had the ball,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
After Connor Cook’s 12-yard touchdown pass to Josiah Price put the Spartans up 14-3 early in the third quarter, the Gophers came right back down the field.
They had a first-and-10 at the Michigan State 11, but Donnell Kirkwood was stopped for a 2-yard loss. Nelson threw an incomplete pass, then took a sack. Chris Hawthorne missed a 38-yard field goal, making that drive fruitless.
The Gophers added a 17-play, 77-yard drive in the fourth quarter that burned 9:21 off the clock. After Nelson got injured, Mitch Leidner kept that drive alive with three third-down completions — a 16-yarder to Drew Wolitarsky, a 7-yarder to Donovahn Jones and a 25-yarder to Wolitarsky.
Again, the Gophers reached the 11, but Cobb had two rushes for no gain and Leidner fumbled on a sack, effectively sealing the loss.
“We definitely have a lot of work to do,” Cobb said. “We can’t leave our defense on the field like that. The defense played great, and we have to come up with more points.”
Jeremy Langford led the Spartans with 21 carries for 134 yards, marking the seventh consecutive game he has gone over the 100-yard mark.
When he raced for a 15-yard touchdown, capping Michigan State’s first drive, it looked like the Spartans would cruise.
Michigan State had averaged 35.5 points in its previous four games, but the Gophers defense made things difficult.
“I think it was a physical football game,” Dantonio said. “Minnesota came to play, obviously. I thought our guys did, too.”