This was exactly what Michigan State needed after last weekend's blowout loss: an early lead, a revitalized running game and an easy victory against an overmatched opponent.
Edwin Baker ran for 179 yards and four touchdowns, and the 16th-ranked Spartans bounced back from their first defeat of the season with a 31-8 win over Minnesota on Saturday.
"We needed someone to give us a push to get this one, and I wasn't the only one," Baker said. "We just went back to basics. We haven't run the ball well in four games, and we worked hard on running it in practice."
Baker scored twice on fourth down near the goal line to help the Spartans (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) take a 21-0 halftime lead. Minnesota (1-9, 0-6) never threatened after that en route to its ninth straight loss.
Michigan State won its first eight games before being blown out 37-6 by Iowa last weekend. Baker turned things around this week with scoring runs of 30, 1 and 1 yard in the first half, and another 1-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions in the Iowa loss, but didn't have to do much against the Golden Gophers. He went 9 of 20 for 131 yards with an interception, and his record-tying streak of 16 games with a touchdown pass came to an end. He shares that school record with Drew Stanton.
Cousins' deep pass over the middle was nearly intercepted early in the first quarter, but immediately after that, Baker scored his 30-yard touchdown.
"We got back to what we like to do best," Cousins said. "I think that first drive, we were able to just run it down the field. ... We hadn't been starting fast."
Michigan State had been outscored 30-0 in the first quarter in its previous four games, and the Spartans hadn't enjoyed a comfortable early lead in a while. Two weeks ago, they trailed Northwestern 17-0 before rallying to win, then they allowed the first 37 points to Iowa.
This time, Michigan State opened up a big lead thanks to a couple aggressive decisions in the second quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Baker scored on a run over the right side of the offensive line. Then, facing fourth down from the 1 again near the end of the half, Michigan State let the clock run before calling a timeout with 4 seconds left. Baker found a hole for an easy touchdown.
"That wasn't an easy 21-0," coach Mark Dantonio said. "I thought that was a critical play, getting that touchdown and sort of putting it on the line a little bit for our football team in doing that. It shows that we have faith in our offensive line and in our running backs."
Minnesota, which fired coach Tim Brewster last month, struggled to move the ball against the Spartans. Senior Adam Weber went 15 of 22 for 167 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his 48th consecutive start, but the Golden Gophers also let MarQueis Gray take some snaps at quarterback.
"That was a pretty good surprise this week, wasn't it?" Minnesota interim coach Jeff Horton said. "We talked about doing it this week. We worked on it, put a package in at practice. We thought we'd give him an opportunity to work in this game. I thought he did some good things there."
Weber holds the Big Ten record for consecutive starts by a quarterback.
Gray, who also plays wide receiver, caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from Weber in the fourth quarter after an interception gave Minnesota the ball at the Michigan State 20.
Baker's final touchdown made it 31-8 with 5:24 left in the game. He nearly scored on a longer run on the previous play, but the ball was spotted at the 1 after an official review.
Baker and Le'Veon Bell have both been threats for Michigan State out of the backfield this season, but Bell carried only six times Saturday, and half of those runs were on the final possession as Michigan State was running out the clock. The Spartans snapped a three-game losing streak against Minnesota, beating the Gophers for the first time since 2004.
"The explosive runs that Edwin had were exceptional," Dantonio said. "So we stick with the guy and gave him the carries."