East Lansing — A little more than three weeks ago, Michigan State had just lost on the road to Notre Dame, its third straight loss to the Irish and fourth in the last five seasons.
The Spartans were 3-1 — not terrible considering the Big Ten season was still to come — but with the way MSU’s offense had been playing, there was hardly much confidence for the conference season brimming around Spartan Stadium.
Defense was hardly the issue — the Spartans were among the best in the nation in most major categories — but if there wasn’t drastic improvement on the other side of the ball, days like the one in Notre Dame Stadium when a solid defensive performance would be lost because of the inability to score would start to become the norm.
A bye week followed, not a ton of time, really, to fix all of the Spartans’ ills. But just two games later, it appears the week off came at just the right time.
Michigan State rolled up 412 yards two weeks ago in a victory at Iowa to open Big Ten play, and Saturday kept that momentum going with a 42-point outing in a home win over Indiana.
The Spartans now sit tied atop the Legends Division with Nebraska at 2-0 in Big Ten play with six games remaining.
“We’re 5-1 and we can set the tone for the next phase,” coach Mark Dantonio said Saturday after the offense ran for 238 yards and threw for 235. “We’re halfway through the season. Now we start playing for things.”
What they’re playing for is a Legends Division title and a trip back to the Big Ten Championship game, a place they were in 2011 and came up painfully short in a 42-39 loss to Wisconsin. After a disappointing 6-6 regular season in 2012, the Spartans find themselves in prime position heading into the last half of the season.
The next two weeks figure to be little more than a primer as Purdue — the worst team, statistically, in the Big Ten — comes to town Saturday and a trip to Illinois follows on Oct. 26.
But that’s when things really ramp up as Michigan State faces a three-game stretch that includes a home game with Michigan followed by back-to-back trips to Nebraska and Northwestern.
While the Spartans’ defense continues to be the class of the Big Ten, the offense appears to be finding its rhythm at just the right time. That wasn’t the case early in the season as the offense accounted for just one touchdown in each of the first two weeks.
It wasn’t a complete surprise to Dantonio, as Michigan State was working three quarterbacks before settling on sophomore Connor Cook.
“I came into the season knowing we were going to have to do some different things,” he said. “We were going to have to have some change, have to have a little bit of an evolution and transition to these things. Sometimes, change takes some time.
“You have to be able to stay the course a little bit and understand some of the problems you’re going to have, whether it’s a young player or whatever the case, you just keep trying to push through. We’ve tried to stay positive with our guys and kept saying, ‘When it does turn, it’s going to turn in a big way.’
“Are we a finished product? I don’t think we’re a finished product yet.”
Cook continues to show improvement each game — he’s thrown for better than 200 yards in each of the last two weeks — something that should improve over the next couple of weeks. He’s been far more accurate and has been aided by a receiving corps playing with more confidence than it has at any point the past two seasons.
Macgarrett Kings Jr. continues to shine with a team-best 23 grabs while junior Tony Lippett and senior Bennie Fowler have re-emerged as playmakers.
Cook said he’s seen it all coming together since the bye week.
“Heading into Iowa we were gelling a lot better in practice, guys were in sync, I was more in sync with the receivers and you could see an improvement,” he said. “We went to Iowa and played really well. I think you did see an improvement this week in practice. Just like a whole confidence level, guys having fun out there not stressing about anything, focusing on the play but having fun while at practice.
“I feel like I have always said this, ‘This is just the beginning.’ We know what we are capable of. We showed what we were capable of against Iowa and against Indiana. We just have to build on our performance.”
Building will be key moving forward as the Spartans now find themselves in control, tied for first place in the Legends with Nebraska.
However, Dantonio doesn’t expect his team to take either of the next two opponents for granted as Michigan State attempts to win another division championship.
“We take it one game at a time, as I think we learned last year,” he said. “Purdue is our focus. I consistently talk about maturity as a football team. Can we handle success? The only way you can answer that question is how you line up and play the next week.
“We’ll take it one game at a time. We’re 5-1 right now. We are what we are. Good things are happening. We’re getting better, I feel.”