Spartans pound Michigan into submission

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The image will ring a bell for Michigan State fans: a triumphant running back bringing his entire offensive line into the interview room after a huge performance against an archrival.

In 2008, Javon Ringer did it after gashing Notre Dame for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries in a suffocating 23-7 victory at Spartan Stadium. Standing in front of his top five trailblazers, Ringer declared, "I can do nothing without these guys paving the way for me. ... I told y'all they should be doing the interviews instead of me."

As you might remember, Ringer went on to earn All-America honors and the Spartans made their strongest push for a Big Ten title since 1999. Michigan State embodied the "pound green pound" philosophy Mark Dantonio espoused after becoming the team's coach, as Ringer led the nation in carries (390) and scoring (10.2 points per game).

Fast forward to late Saturday afternoon, moments after No. 17 Michigan State finished off a 34-17 win against No. 18 Michigan.

The door opened to the visitors' interview room at Michigan Stadium, and Spartans running back Edwin Baker entered, followed by the team's starting offensive line. Baker racked up 147 rushing yards and a touchdown.

What was the plan on offense?

"Pound green pound," Baker said. "Today we showcased to everybody in the world that we're going to run the ball. We're going to be Big Ten champions."

Bold words from Baker, but after Michigan State pounded Michigan into submission Saturday, he might be onto something.

The Spartans' offense is rediscovering its identity after a season of new faces in key places. And this year's unit might have both the balance and firepower Michigan State lacked in 2008, enough to take the team one step further.

Want to see balance? Don Treadwell's offense racked up 287 pass yards and 249 rush yards against Michigan.

Want to see power? Simply watch Michigan State's 10-play, 93-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, which featured eight run plays, capped fittingly by a bruising 8-yard scoring run by Larry Caper that pushed Michigan defenders past their own goal line.

"It got to a point where we could impose our will on them," Spartans guard Joel Foreman said. "We were dominating this line of scrimmage, and that's what we wanted to work for."

Last season, Michigan State finished second in the Big Ten in passing (269.4 yards per game) and first in passing touchdowns (28). But the rushing offense ranked a middling sixth in the league and 73rd nationally.

The Spartans had no clear successor for Ringer and tried several young players, namely both Caper and Baker, as their featured backs.

"That was our main goal this season," Baker said, "establish the run game and run hard and get over 100 yards every game. We didn't do that last season."

The Spartans have returned to the run this fall, eclipsing 200 rushing yards in five of their first six games. Baker on Saturday recorded his third 100-yard effort of the season, and true freshman Le'Veon Bell, who had a 41-yard touchdown dash against Michigan, has twice reached triple digits.

The ground swell hasn't diminished Michigan State's pass attack. Far from it.

Junior quarterback Kirk Cousins dissected Michigan's weak secondary for 284 yards, completing 18 of 25 passes and spreading the ball to eight different receivers. Cousins has improved with each game, executing the play-action to perfection and boosting his completion percentage to 68.2 percent.

"That's what makes our offense so deadly, the ability we have to balance," said receiver Mark Dell, who had a 41-yard touchdown grab and 93 receiving yards in the game. "We can come out all day and run, and still execute, and we can come out and pass and execute.

"The variety that we have and the balance that we show makes our offense dangerous."

Arguably no group came out of Saturday more satisfied than the offensive line, a group heavily doubted before the season. After allowing two first-half sacks, the line kept Cousins clean and wore down Michigan's front, the strength of the Wolverines' defense.

"Every game is a statement game for our offensive line," Foreman said.

And even at the end, with the game well in hand, Michigan State continued to pound away. Facing a fourth-and-2, fifth-year senior center John Stipek told the huddle, "Guys, let's get this first down. I want to beat Michigan."

Baker ran up the gut for 5 yards and then the Spartans took a knee.

The statement?

"We are Big Ten contenders," Baker said. "And we're going to showcase that every week."