Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski and Michigan State beat writer Matt Charboneau break down Michigan State's 27-24 victory. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
East Lansing — It’s hard to quantify confidence.
It can’t be judged in numbers or statistics, but when it’s high, those numbers and statistics usually start to spike, and with that typically comes wins.
That’s where No. 13 Michigan State finds itself in the wake of Saturday’s last-second victory over Penn State.
The Spartans are headed to Ohio State this weekend with a chance to seize control of the Big Ten East Division and provide an inside track to the conference championship game.
It’s something that, earlier in the season, might have seemed like too daunting of a task. However, as the numbers have been growing and the win total keeps ticking up, the confidence has followed, even with a triple-overtime loss to Northwestern squeezed in the middle the Spartans’ run to a 5-1 mark in conference play.
“I think we’re a confident team in terms of we’re gonna play hard and compete,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in his weekly teleconference Sunday. “Every game’s gonna be different, but I think that we’ve become a little bit more confident as we take each step.”
It didn’t happen overnight, especially considering what Michigan State went through last season. But maybe some of the struggles of a season ago have led to this quick turnaround.
The core of the roster has seen plenty of ups and downs and the newcomers aren’t wasting any time proving they can get it done. From receivers Cody White and Hunter Rison to offensive linemen Kevin Jarvis and Jordan Reid to a defense being aided by end Jacub Panasiuk and cornerback Josiah Scott, the freshmen have helped build the confidence that now exists.
“Coming off a 3-9 season, we have the guys we want here, we have a lot of confidence in each other,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “Knowing that each and every one of the people on the field can make plays and can contribute, even the guys on the sidelines can make noise and pump all the other guys up. It's just a confidence thing.
“We just believe in each other.”
That belief wasn’t as prevalent in 2016, not the craziest conclusion to make when a team wins just one conference game.
But the difference this season seems to be a bad play, a bad series, a bad game doesn’t send the Spartans into a spiral. They bounced back from the home loss to Notre Dame to win the next four games. And after the loss at Northwestern, the upset of Penn State came next.
Dantonio said after the win over the Nittany Lions he sees a team that’s becoming sure of itself. On Sunday, he made it clear there’s not sort of cockiness involved in that.
“I don’t want an overconfident team,” Dantonio said. “I want a team that’s sure of themselves. And so we’ll play fast and play hard and compete.
“We’re gonna make some mistakes, and from what I’ve seen so far, this game’s gonna be tight. So, we just keep playing one play at a time.
“It’s not perfect, but few football games are. So, I’m very confident that our guys are having fun, competing. We’ve got good leadership in the locker room, good chemistry in the locker room and there’s good emotion.”
The biggest indicator of Michigan State’s growing confidence is on offense, specifically the passing attack.
In the last two games, Lewerke had thrown for six TDs and 845 yards. Along the way, the receiving corps has started take off. Felton Davis had eight catches against Northwestern and 12 vs. Penn State while sophomore Darrell Stewart has 17 grabs in two games. White has been emerging with 14 catches and two touchdowns in two games while Rison is proving to have the ability to make clutch catches in big moments.
“I think it's a full-team effort,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “Brian has been doing a great job throwing the ball around, been very accurate but I think he's had pretty good protection for the most part. Nothing's ever perfect. I think our receivers are growing as well. They're running good routes, getting open, they're getting on the same page. I think it's everybody involved in the offense.”
Will that continue next week against the Buckeyes? It’s hard to know for sure, but one thing seems certain, the moment won’t be too big for the young Spartans. The way they’ve played to this point proves that.
“(Winning on the last play) was exciting to watch,” Dantonio said. “Now we go to Ohio State to see what’s next.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Records: Michigan State 7-2, 5-1 Big Ten; Ohio State 7-2, 5-1
Line: Ohio State by 16