East Lansing — As Michigan State defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas stood before the media on Saturday evening, he let a little smile sneak out.
The fifth-year senior was asked about his team being 8-0 and a perfect 4-0 in the Big Ten heading into the bye week after a 52-26 victory over Indiana.
“It feels great,” Thomas said, the smile spreading. “There’s nothing like being undefeated. We have to keep on going one game at a time.”
That statement probably summed up No. 6 Michigan State perfectly this season. The Spartans are unbeaten, but it’s been a challenge every week. Few wins have been dominating, even the margin against the Hoosiers doesn’t tell the complete tale — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was one of the first to point that out.
Even so, the Spartans are right where they expected to be when the season began. The goal was to win the Big Ten East, get to the conference title game, win that and have a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff.
While some style points might be lacking, the Spartans are still right on course.
“We were working for 8-0,” Dantonio said on Saturday. “It hasn’t gone perfectly, but we’re 8-0. … We know how to win. The bottom line is we know how to win; we’ve learned how to win here. We’ve learned how to win close games. We’ve learned how to take a game, in this case, and sort of distance ourselves.
“The culture exists that we expect to win and somehow, someway, we’ve got to regain our composure and do pretty well. I think that’s the biggest thing. We expect now to win and there’s a confidence level.”
That confidence level is helped by having the winningest quarterback in program history. Fifth-year senior Connor Cook is 31-3 in his career and has thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games. He had a career-high 398 against Indiana and had the Hoosiers marveling at his ability.
“He throws to covered receivers in reasonably tight coverage, but he puts the ball where he gives his guy a chance,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. “If you were to talk to a pro scout or coach, they would talk about challenged throws. When the guy is really getting challenged, he throws it at his player where he can make a play on the ball.”
His receivers also have been outstanding, led by Aaron Burbridge, who has six 100-yard games this season.
The key for the offense moving forward is getting healthy up front. The injuries have been numerous throughout the roster, but the offensive line has suffered as much as any unit. The benefit for Michigan State is that things are starting to come around at the right time.
Tackles Jack Conklin and Kodi Kieler are back after early knee injuries and center Jack Allen should return for the Nebraska game. Along the way, young players such as Benny McGowan and David Beedle have gained valuable experience.
“We’re getting healthy,” Conklin said. “We’ve gotten almost everybody back. Hopefully, we’ll have everybody back for the Nebraska game. I’m excited. With the depth we’ve created because of the injuries, we’re going to have that nine-to-10-man rotation back that we’ve had in the past years. That’s exciting.”
Defensively, the Spartans remain potent up front with 26 sacks, third-best in the Big Ten. And the linebackers have been solid all season.
It’s been important considering the issues in the back end. Injuries have knocked out cornerbacks Vayante Copeland and Darian Hicks, as well as safety RJ Williamson. And with safety Montae Nicholson struggling, the Spartans have had to turn to a pair of true freshmen — Grayson Miller and Khari Willis.
But like the offensive line, the unit is gaining valuable experience and is showing signs of getting better. They’ll need to be down the stretch, especially in the final two games against Ohio State and Penn State.
“We know they’re players,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said, “but it’s them having confidence and the players around them (being confident) and that confidence grows and we play better and better, and you could see that in the second half.”
Aside from injuries, special teams have been the biggest concern for Michigan State. The kicking game was better against Indiana, but whether it performs in big games late this season remains to be seen.
It has all made this a tougher season for Dantonio.
“It’s been stressful out there but it’s what you do,” he said. “You get upset about this call or that call, an offensive play or a defensive play, or a technique, but you just try and win. You try and do everything in your mind that you can do to possibly help us win.”
Some might wonder if Michigan State has what it takes. Can the Spartans win out, which would include a victory at Ohio State? It’s hard to say heading into the bye, but they feel things are on track.
“We’re right where we need to be,” Cook said. “Guys are going to get healthy, guys are going to get back, but to just finish the way we did. We hadn’t scored 40 points in a game yet this year, but we scored 52. … And the way our defense played, holding it together, only 26 points. Obviously (Indiana) is more than capable to put up 40-50 points against any defense in the country. So for our defense to play the way they did against a great offense and a great quarterback in Nate Sudfeld, it’s awesome.
“We’re right where we need to be.”