East Lansing — There was no boasting on Saturday evening, no chest-thumping or grand statements being made following Michigan State’s victory over Western Michigan.
It helped the Spartans reach 2-0 heading into an early off week before closing non-conference play in two weeks against Notre Dame, but the feeling was best described as cautiously optimistic.
That’s saying something, especially on the defensive side of the ball where, if they wanted, the Spartans would have been well within their right to be feeling good about themselves. After all, through two games, the Michigan State defense has yet to allow a touchdown and has given up just three points, which came on a field goal in the opener against Bowling Green.
In the 28-14 win over Western Michigan, the Broncos’ points came off a fumble return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for another score.
“It’s pleasing, obviously,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “We have 10 more (games) guaranteed and we want to continue to play that way and continue to get better. So, proud of the guys ... they’re executing what we talked about throughout the course of the week and, give them the credit, they’re going out there executing the game plan and getting it done.”
Getting it done is the best way to describe the first two weeks for the Spartans.
In the opener, they allowed just 212 total yards, including 67 on the ground. Against Western Michigan, it was a total of 195 yards, and just 79 through the air.
Those are the sorts of numbers Michigan State became used to under coach Mark Dantonio, but disappeared last season when the Spartans ranked 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense and were 12th in pass-efficiency defense.
But again, the Spartans aren’t busy admiring what they have done to begin the season.
“I mean, we can sit here and be happy but we know that there is always going to be room to improve,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We just have to continue to get better every week, studying the opponent. We have a very good opponent coming in here in two weeks. We just have to keep staying on the young guys to continue watching film and doing what they need to do off the field so that when that Saturday comes around, we’re ready to go.”
Another area that’s starting to look a lot more familiar is the pass rush. Always a team that got after the passer, Michigan State managed just 11 sacks last season. Through two games, the Spartans now have five, including four against Western Michigan.
“That is something we have been priding ourselves on — getting to the quarterback, getting to the sacks and making plays as a defense,” said junior linebacker Andrew Dowell, whose first sack was among six tackles vs. WMU. “We had a little piece of that today. We are going to continue to improve on it going forward.”
The improved pass rush will no doubt make the Spartans better. One place that could help is in creating turnovers, and the Spartans got one Saturday when freshman cornerback Josiah Scott got his first career interception.
It’s one example of how Michigan State is better this year on defense, even playing plenty of unproven players.
“Well, we made some tweaks in the things that we do,” Barnett said. “I’ll let you guys try to figure that out, what they are as you watch the film, but we tweaked some things up and it’s made us better. As I said before, people study the champs, they study us to see how you beat them, and they talk about you and they find out ways to do certain things against us that we were doing for years. So, we had to change some things up to help us be more effective and we did and our guys are executing.”
The key for Michigan State will be proving those tweaks that have been so effective the first two weeks will lead to the Spartans defense getting back to the dominant unit it has been for the better part of the last two seasons.
They’ll get an extra week to fine-tune things, but Notre Dame should be a stiff test in two weeks. And while they’re playing it low key, the Spartans are feeling good about the start to the season.
“Confidence is high,” Dowell said. “We know what we can do. We have a big challenge in two weeks, Notre Dame, so we will have a lot of time to prepare for that but confidence is high playing Spartan football.”