EAST LANSING, Mich. — Team guy that he is, Mariano Sori-Marin wasn't about to beat his chest and scream that the Gophers have arrived after their 34-7 dismantling of Michigan State in front of nearly 75,000 green-clad spectators whose reactions went from puzzlement to anger and finally to resignation as the game wore on.
Sure, Sori-Marin and his teammates celebrated afterward, but the "one-game, championship season'' mantra that coach P.J. Fleck stresses each week takes precedence in their public comments.
Still, there was a bit of confident edginess in how Sori-Marin responded when asked if the win over the Spartans was a case of the Gophers beating a "somebody'' after opening the season with three overmatched nonconference opponents.
"We had to go out there and execute the game plan in the best of our ability, and I think we did exactly that,'' he said. "I talked to you guys last week about getting more takeaways, and we did exactly that. … We also talked about limiting explosive plays because this was an operation that liked to get big chunk plays downfield. We knew we were going to have to stop them by making them drive the field, and we did exactly that.''
That detail-oriented approach on both sides of the ball has enabled the Gophers to move into the Top 25 in both of the major college football polls. They're No. 21 in the Associated Press poll of media members. In the USA Today/AFCA coaches poll, they're No. 23.
Minnesota's defensive effort nearly resulted in its second shutout this season. Michigan State ended the bid when it scored a touchdown against the Gophers reserves with 17 seconds left.
The Gophers forced three turnovers Saturday, and each came at an opportune time.
* With Minnesota up 17-0 in the second quarter, Michigan State reached Gophers territory and had a fourth-and-6 from the 46. The Spartans went for it, but Gophers cornerback Justin Walley intercepted a Payton Thorne pass.
* Down 17-0, Michigan State had its best chance to get back in the game when it drove to the Minnesota 6 to open the second half. On first-and-goal, Thorne kept the ball on an option, but defensive end Thomas Rush knocked the ball loose and Walley recovered the fumble at the 10. The Gophers offensive cashed that in with a 12-play, 90-yard march to increase the lead to 24-0.
* Two plays after that TD, defensive end Danny Striggow blew up a screen play and intercepted Thorne's pass at the Spartans 28, leading to another Minnesota touchdown.
"We practice catching the ball with every single one of our players,'' Fleck said. "O-linemen, D-linemen, it doesn't matter. The ball is the program.''
The Gophers also successfully limited Michigan State's chunk plays. In the first half, the Spartans had only one play that gained more than 10 yards, an 11-yard pass from Thorne to Maliq Carr. Michigan State had eight gains of 10 or more yards in the second half, but only one surpassed 20 yards — Noah Kim's 27-yard TD pass to Germie Bernard.
A big assist for the Gophers defensive success goes to an offense that kept the ball for 42 minutes, 30 seconds, greatly limiting Michigan State's opportunities. And the defense returned the favor, getting back-to-back three-and-outs in the first quarter, leading to 10 Gophers points.
The victory left the Gophers first nationally in total defense at 187.8 yards allowed per game and first in opponent third-down conversions (14.29%). They're second in scoring defense (6.0 points allowed per game), second in pass defense (126.0) and third in rushing defense (61.8).
The stats are great, but Sori-Marin knows there's room to improve.
"There's always something to get better at,'' he said. "We're going to throw this film on, and there's gonna be a thousand points that our coaches give us that we could have done better.''