East Lansing — This is how you’re supposed to look if you think you’re championship material.
You make it look easy when you should, which is something last year’s eventual Big Ten champs certainly took their time figuring out.
Friday night, Michigan State wasted none, however, as they laid waste to Jacksonville State in a 45-7 rout before a crowd of 75,127 at Spartan Stadium.
The eighth-ranked Spartans turned their season opener against an FCS opponent into the kind of dress rehearsal every coach wants.
“We came out, we did what we needed to do,” Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio said. “We had a dominant football game.”
And by doing so, they set the stage for something much more difficult. The Spartans will head to Oregon next week for what figures to be the biggest nonconference game of this college football season — a pair of top-10 teams with national-title hopes in play.
They’ll be underdogs in Eugene, regardless of what happened here against an overmatched opponent. But after this debut — a game that looked entirely different from the 2013 opener — that trip won’t seem quite as daunting. Because this year the Spartans aren’t just packing their defense when they hit the road for the first time.
“For us to come out and play the way we did, guys making plays all over the field, it’s obviously a big confidence booster for all of us heading into a big-time game and big-time environment against a big-time opponent,” said quarterback Connor Cook, who was nearly flawless in two quarters of work.
Last season, you’ll recall, it took nearly two full games for Michigan State’s offense to score two whole touchdowns against two of the worst teams in the nation.
Friday, it took the Spartans just two possessions — and less than 5 minutes on the game clock — to equal that total.
And when asked about the night-and-day difference, offensive coordinator Dave Warner couldn’t help but laugh, interrupting a reporter who referenced his offense getting shut out of the end zone in last year’s opener against Western Michigan.
“We didn’t score one?” Warner asked, smiling. “I think we scored one. Kicked two field goals, too, by the way. Not real proud of that, but …”
But, well, this was a much different effort, and no one knew that better than Warner, who’d summed up that one-TD, 11-punt nightmare a year ago with two words: “Very disappointing.”
Picking right up
Friday wasn’t without its scares, of course. Most notably, there was Cook getting drilled in his left knee on his second pass attempt — a scrambling, 64-yard bomb to Tony Lippett for the game’s first touchdown. That low blow left him limping badly — “Yeah, it was frightening: I haven’t gotten hit like that in a while,” Cook said — but only briefly.
He returned for the next series, tossed another touchdown pass to Lippett, and just like that, the rout was on. By halftime, Dantonio’s team had built a 38-0 lead with 393 yards of total offense, its highest first-half total since that 2011 Big Ten championship shootout with Wisconsin.
Cook stayed on the sideline after that — safe and sound — finishing his night 12-of-13 passing for 285 yards and three touchdowns. But after what Michigan State fans went through at the start of last season, this was a welcomed benching. Even the fans chanting for third-stringer Damion Terry — a year ago, it had a different meaning — got their wish Friday as the redshirt freshman played the fourth quarter.
“We came out and obviously provided some fireworks early on,” Warner said. “I guess that’s what people expected of us. And to be honest, that’s what we expected of our offense. I think we picked up where we left off last year.”
So now the question is where they’ll take it from here. The offensive line needs to get better, and may have to replace starting guard Travis Jackson, who left with an injury. The run game didn't offer much in the way of explosive plays, save for Nick Hill's pinball touchdown early in the second quarter.
But Cook, blessed with a talented — and deep — receiving corps, talked after the game about the need to “be greedy” and mentioned with a straight face his goals for this becoming an “elite” offense, one that ranks in the top five nationally this season.
That thought would’ve been laughable a year ago.
But Friday was another reminder this offense is no joke anymore.