Spartans rise to No. 2, but Dantonio focused elsewhere
East Lansing — Michigan State heads into its final week of nonconference play as the No. 2 team in the nation, but it's not something coach Mark Dantonio is focused on.
Instead, Dantonio is far more dialed in to dealing with the loss of cornerback Vayante Copeland, sparking the running game, finding consistency in special teams and determining which true freshmen might still see the field.
"I don't think there's any finished product here yet," Dantonio said. "I think these rankings, a lot of it is based on how you ended up last season."
Michigan State (3-0) comes in at No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the coaches' poll after its 35-21 victory over Air Force.
Alabama's loss to Mississippi assured some movement, but Michigan State leapfrogged TCU in the AP, giving the Big Ten its first 1-2 ranking since Ohio State and Michigan in 2006.
But Michigan State has its sights set on Central Michigan's visit Saturday, not where it might be at the end of the year.
"A lot of things happened that shakes up the rankings and those things will continue to happen," Dantonio said. "We need to keep our mind on our business and just focus on the moment. The next one up is Central. We certainly have opportunities moving forward, but it's a long road in front of us."
One key area of focus is cornerback, where Dantonio confirmed Copeland, a redshirt freshman, suffered a fractured vertebrae and will miss the season.
"It's very unfortunate; he's a great player and a good person," Dantonio said. "But he's handling it very well. That's the situation and you cannot mess with that kind of thing. We took the precautions, did the MRIs, etc., and those are the things that it showed.
"He'll heal fine, be back for the spring, but right now it's too iffy of a situation."
Copeland was injured in the fourth quarter of Michigan State's victory over Oregon on Sept. 12 and watched the game against Air Force from the sidelines with a neck brace. He won the starting job during camp, but several players likely will see more time.
Fifth-year senior Arjen Colquhoun started against Air Force, while juniors Darian Hicks and Jermaine Edmondson have seen action.
There's a chance No. 2 Michigan State also could go to a true freshman, including taking the redshirt off players like Josh Butler or David Dowell.
"Josh Butler is one of those corners we're talking about," Dantonio said. "He's played extremely well at practice. Whether we take the redshirt off of him or not, I'm not sure. But I think that's five (cornerbacks) and David Dowell is another freshman that has shown a lot of things."
True freshman safety Grayson Miller did get his first action against Air Force, primarily on special teams. Andrew Dowell, another true freshman, played 49 snaps at "Star" linebacker as fifth-year senior Darien Harris was limited.
But Dantonio said sophomore linebacker Drake Martinez is close to returning from injury, and the depth of his team will be the key.
"I do think we have depth, I think we have good football players on this team," he said. "And that will not be an excuse not to win. Football injuries are gonna occur, and you're gonna have to handle them."
Injuries aren't the issue at middle linebacker, but Michigan State will be without junior Riley Bullough, who has to sit out the first half against Central Michigan after getting ejected in the fourth quarter against Air Force when he was called for targeting.
After seeing the replay, Dantonio reiterated he doesn't believe Bullough's hit was intentional but already is planning on who will step in. Sophomore Shane Jones played against Air Force while sophomore Jon Reschke could easily move back from the outside. Redshirt freshman Byron Bullough is also an option.
"Shane went in there and was productive," Dantonio said. "Reschke has played in there before and Byron Bullough has played in there as well and has worked a lot throughout fall camp. He's a redshirt freshman so he's got knowledge of the position."
Central Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Central Michigan 1-2, Michigan State 3-0
Line: Michigan State by 28½
Series: Michigan State leads 6-3