Michigan State woke up in time to down Indiana, 17-9, and at 6-1 is bowl eligible. This is a major accomplishment considering the wreckage of last year’s 3-9 campaign is still smoldering. The Spartans are the Spartans again. And that means racking up victories and competing for championships while doing little to convince non-believers that they are actually good. The journey back to respectability was less arduous than many expected. Honestly, this comes as a bit of a disappointment to a fanbase whose No. 1 kink is being disrespected.
Michigan State is ranked 16th in one poll and 18th in the other. Mark Dantonio’s team is 4-0 in the Big Ten and controls its own destiny. And yet, no sane person believes they’ll emerge ahead of the two East powerhouses, Ohio State and Penn State. This is the exact situation MSU courts and excels within. The way back to relevancy is yet again paved with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks.
A trip to Northwestern looms this weekend, and the oddsmakers have MSU as a one-point road favorite. It will be both a 50-50 game and a final measuring stick before the two biggest, season-defining Saturdays.
In two weeks, Penn State comes to East Lansing. The next week, Michigan State travels to Columbus. MSU is not winning both of those. But they may only need to win one to win the East and earn a spot in the Big Ten title game. The easiest path for the Spartans to win the division with one loss is to beat Penn State and have Ohio State lose two times. The Buckeyes host Penn State this weekend and still must travel to Iowa and Michigan. Losing two of three is not outside the realm of possibility.
Of course, even discussing the possibility of a division title was absurd a month ago after Notre Dame dismantled MSU in Spartan Stadium. Since then, Michigan State has won four one-score games in a row. A three-point win over Iowa, a four-point win at Michigan, a three-point win at Minnesota, and an eight-point win over Indiana is not the most convincing evidence of a championship-caliber team.
It may, however, be evidence that a team perceived as middling-to-mediocre is actually much better.
Obviously, there are significant warts on the ledger. The Spartans’ Brian Lewerke-led offense has posted 17 points or fewer in three out of the last four contests. The sophomore quarterback has struggled with accuracy and hasn’t created many deep plays. The unit is 101st in offensive explosiveness and 103rd in scoring at 22.7 points/game.
The roster and on-field rotation resembles a day care center with lack of experience starting at nearly every position. Youthful errors and growing pains have been ubiquitous.
And yet … here Michigan State is — in the conversation for a familiar reason. Defense. That unit, despite youth, is in the top-10 of several key categories and allows just 16.8/points a game. One must take a deeper dive, though, to realize how incredible the bulwark has been when not fighting terrible field position.
Taking out points, scored by opposing defenses or special teams, MSU’s unit has allowed 80 total points (11.4/game). Only 51 of those points have not come as a result of a Spartans turnover (7.29/game). By the numbers, this is an elite unit.
Penn State and Ohio State will certainly present a challenge but we’ve seen the blueprint for an upset time and time again in the Dantonio era. Score just enough points to win and force an opponent into an ugly, field-position game.
There’s something new and exciting and East Lansing, but it also reflects something vintage. The old Michigan State is back, much sooner than expected.