EAST LANSING, Mich. — Max Bullough left the field after one last victory at Spartan Stadium, and although the focus would quickly turn to next weekend’s Big Ten title game, the Michigan State linebacker didn’t want to let go of this moment.
“I looked back right before I walked in the tunnel, and just tried to take it in,” said Bullough, a senior. “Just tried to stop for a minute. That’s one of the things that’s hard for me — to just stop for a minute and understand not only the players I’ve played with, the coaches I’ve had, but all the hard work.”
Bullough led another fabulous effort by the Michigan State defense, and the 11th-ranked Spartans wrapped up an unbeaten regular season in Big Ten play with a 14-3 victory over Minnesota on Saturday. Jeremy Langford ran for 134 yards and a touchdown for Michigan State, which had already clinched a spot in next weekend’s league championship game against Ohio State.
The Spartans went undefeated at home for the third time in four years. They’ve also reached 11 wins in each of those seasons, but Michigan State has not played in the Rose Bowl since 1988.
“Everybody sets goals for themselves, and that’s a goal that we’ve not yet accomplished,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “So that’s the No. 1 goal, to be outright Big Ten champion, and the way the format is structured now, would be something that would be very important to this program. Obviously, to get to the Rose Bowl is something that we’ve aspired to since the day we set foot on this campus.”
The Spartans (11-1, 8-0) finished a perfect Big Ten regular season for only the third time. They also did it in 1965 and 1966, when they only had to play seven conference games.
There was no letdown against Minnesota (8-4, 4-4). Michigan State’s top-ranked defense forced three turnovers and kept the Golden Gophers out of the end zone.
The Spartans took the lead right away Saturday on Langford’s 15-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, which capped a seven-play, 80-yard drive. Minnesota’s Philip Nelson attempted only seven passes in the first half, and two of them were picked off by Michigan State’s Trae Waynes.
“You’re not going to lose many games giving up three points,” Dantonio said.
Chris Hawthorne’s 21-yard field goal made it 7-3, and the Spartans missed a chance to score at the end of the half when Connor Cook was intercepted at the Minnesota 24 by Derrick Wells in the final seconds.
Michigan State went 75 yards in eight plays to start the third quarter and led 14-3 after Cook’s 12-yard scoring pass to Josiah Price.
Minnesota had a chance to get back in the game in the fourth when backup quarterback Mitch Leidner directed a drive deep into Michigan State territory. But Leidner was sacked and fumbled, and the Spartans recovered at their own 14 with 4:45 to play.
“It was a physical football game,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “I thought we physically played hard, defensively played good, and offensively we moved the ball. We just didn’t finish drives.”
Minnesota’s David Cobb ran for 101 yards, not a bad day against a Michigan State team ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense. But Nelson went 6 of 18 for 77 yards, and Leidner was 3 of 7 for 48 yards.
“It makes it tough moving around in the pocket when you’ve got guys flying all around you,” Leidner said. “Credit to them. They got great pressure on us. At the same time, our offensive line played great all day. Both Phil and I have to make throws.”
The Gophers had the ball for 38:41, but Michigan State’s defense never seemed to tire.
“Didn’t get a whole lot per minute out there, I know that,” Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
Cook went 10 of 20 for 143 yards with an interception.
Michigan State held an opponent without a touchdown for the fifth time in the last six games. The Spartans won despite minimal contributions from the offense. Michigan State went 0 for 8 on third down.
Minnesota was held without an offensive touchdown for the second straight game after losing 20-7 to Wisconsin last weekend.