Michigan State LB Joe Bachie, QB Brian Lewerke, RB LJ Scott and DE Kenny Willekes look ahead to the Notre Dame game. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — There aren’t many people around the Michigan State program that will say so, but the 2-0 start to the 2017 season has a far different feeling than the one a year ago.
With everything that happened with the Spartans program over the final 10 games of the season and through the winter and spring, Michigan State was a team desperate to start playing games. They said it at the start of preseason camp and it was evident leading up to the season-opener — the 3-9 finish to 2016 and the off-field woes were in the past. It was time to focus on football.
Now, two weeks in and going through another early bye, the Spartans have a confident feeling. Not like the one last year when people outside the program were predicting big things after a road win at Notre Dame. This year it’s more of a quiet confidence – more of a this-is-what-we’re-supposed-to-do type of feeling.
“I think we’re definitely motivated and feeling confident about ourselves,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said after practice on Tuesday. “It’s just two MAC wins so we still have a long way to go, but we definitely took two good steps in right direction.
“I think it was good to be able do to a team as we should have. Instead of making it closer than we wanted, I think we handled them pretty well, so it was definitely good to get those two wins underneath our belt.”
Those wins did come over teams from the Mid-American Conference — a 35-10 victory over Bowling Green in the opener and a 28-14 win over Western Michigan last week. And while most expected Michigan State to win those games, they were hardly guarantees.
There aren’t many of those these days and considering Western Michigan was coming off close games against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl and Southern Cal in the season opener, beating the Broncos has been a boost for Michigan State, which sits at 2-0 for the third consecutive season.
However, while the quick start feels good, it’s not exactly a sign of what’s to come. At least, the Spartans aren’t looking at it that way.
“We've always had confidence here,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Even last year, I felt like we had confidence to win every game and we came out in every football game and were ahead. You can't do that if you don't have confidence in yourself. Every team, every year takes on its own identity. At the end of the year, you know what that identity is and you get stamped. The ’13 team played with great emotion and sort of just kept going like that all the way up to 13-1.
“So, we're 2-0 and that's the only thing that's important now but we are way too early to start saying this team has a common thread.
“I just think that right now, we just need to take one thing at a time, concentrate and focus on the present.”
That present has Michigan State at least feeling like it’s heading in the right direction. A lot of that is because its young roster has been producing.
From a defense with just one senior starter that has allowed only three points this season to an offense running four redshirt freshmen or true freshmen along the offensive line and three true freshmen wide receivers, the future is starting to become the present.
“We needed to build a little confidence,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “A lot of guys built some confidence. You saw (freshman cornerback) Josiah Scott running around out there. (Redshirt freshman defensive tackle) Naquan Jones is another guy that got some experience, (sophomore cornerback) Josh Butler — you know, guys that really needed it. Myself, I needed it.”
The key now is carrying it through an off week and into a game that will have far more attention. It’s a traditional rivalry that is big enough, but add the primetime kickoff on national TV and the stakes are getting higher.
It’s what most of the Spartans want, and as good as the start has been they’ll start getting a better idea of where they stand next Saturday.
“Don’t get me wrong, those two teams are good teams but games like this are what we come here for,” running back LJ Scott said of the Notre Dame showdown. “We came here for the big matchups. I’m not saying (Bowling Green and Western Michigan) are no competition, but this is more elite.
“Notre Dame is a great team and we’ve got to come ready to play.”
Dantonio said how his team comes out of the bye will be a better indicator than what it’s done the first two weeks. That’s true because there are no breaks from this point forward.
After Notre Dame, Big Ten play begins with Iowa coming to Spartan Stadium a week ahead of a trip to Michigan.
The Spartans hope they are playing with the same confidence then.
“We need to keep (the start) in context and understand we have some very big games down the stretch here as we start after this bye week,” Dantonio said. “We start Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa; that's just the beginning. We need to stay focused on the present.”