East Lansing — Michigan State enters Saturday’s matchup against Central Michigan 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Throw in a huge victory over Oregon, and Michigan State is in pretty good position with nonconference play ending.
Yet, it’s all been accomplished with the Spartans believing they have yet to play a complete game.
“Coach (Mark Dantonio) has talked about it numerous times and we feel the same way,” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We feel like we haven’t had our best game yet, collectively as a group.”
For Cook, the obvious focus is an offense coming off a record-setting season. In 2014, Michigan State had more points (559), total yards (6,510), total touchdowns (70), rushing touchdowns (44) and scoring average (43) than it has in any season in its history.
Through three games, however, that prolific attack hasn’t been on full display. There have been moments — Cook’s four touchdown passes last week and the play of senior receiver Aaron Burbridge, along with some bursts from running backs Madre London and LJ Scott — but overall the offense has yet to take off.
Michigan State is ninth in total offense (388.3 yards per gamea) in the Big Ten and 12th in rushing offense (156.7).
Last week against Air Force, the passing game was effective as Burbridge had 156 yards and three touchdowns, but the running game was held to 77 yards. It was the lowest output for Michigan State since it gained 65 yards against Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, and the least in a regular-season game since it gained 61 yards in a victory at Wisconsin in 2012.
And the past two games, the offense has had the chance to put the game away but failed. It finished the Oregon game with two straight three-and-outs as the Ducks nearly completed a comeback, and last week failed to convert a fourth-and-1 that gave Air Force life.
It goes back to Michigan State not running the ball.
“Defensive teams know when you’re just trying to run it, if you’re trying to take the air out of the ball (late),” Dantonio said. “It becomes a little bit more difficult to run the football because you’ve got a 10-point lead, there’s four minutes to go, those type of things.
“But we’ve got to have the ability to run the ball and be balanced and that’s who we’ve been, that’s who we will be. We have good running backs and a good offensive line, but it takes a lot of different pieces to run the football.”
Judging the Spartans solely on last week would be unfair considering the way the Falcons defended them, using several blitz packages. And the loss of right tackle Kodi Kieler to a knee injury early against Oregon hasn’t helped.
But center Jack Allen isn’t making excuses.
“There are things we (messed) up, too, as an O-line and need to improve,” he said. “None of the grades after the game were what we wanted them to be. There were things we could have picked up and adjusted to as an O-line and we didn’t do it.”
Cook is convinced that complete offensive game is coming.
“Once we start clicking, running the ball very efficiently and passing the ball efficiently, I think it will be hard to stop us,” Cook said. “I think we’ll be putting up more points and we’ll be harder to deal with.”
Michigan State will be looking to get that offense rolling against a Central Michigan defense ranked second in the Mid-American Conference and 30th in the nation in total defense (308.7 yards). Not only are the Chippewas playing well defensively — they’ve allowed an average of 128.3 yards rushing per game — they have history behind them.
It was Dantonio’s third season at Michigan State the last time Central Michigan won at Spartan Stadium. That was a come-from-behind, 29-27 victory that included an onside kick and last-second field goal.
Before that, Central Michigan beat Michigan State in back-to-back years — 1991 and 1992.
“Just never overlook an opponent,” Cook said. “You never want to lose to an opponent like that in Spartan Stadium. I remember watching the game in 2009. They had the crazy onside kick recovery and then kicked the field goal to win.
“They are a talented team with good coaches who will have them ready for us. We don’t take anyone lightly.”
Central Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon today, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Central Michigan 1-2, Michigan State 3-0
Line: Michigan State by 26
Series: Michigan State leads 6-3