Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews the Spartans' game this week against Northwestern. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News


East Lansing — It starts to get real, now, for Michigan State.

After one last dip into non-conference play last week with a victory over a rebuilding Central Michigan team, the margin for error begins to close rapidly for the Spartans as it’s all Big Ten play from here, beginning with Saturday’s noon matchup at Spartan Stadium with Northwestern.

Where does No. 20 Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) stand at this point? What is their identity as the push for the Big Ten East title begins for a team that has been good defensively but is still trying to find its way on the offensive side of the ball?

“I talked to our team yesterday about that, what's our identity?” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “We talk about here's the goals we want to accomplish this next month. We've really been in two months of football — one month of camp and one month of four weeks of one Big-Ten game and three out-of-conference games. So these next four games sort of start to define you a little bit.”

It’s this time of year that has defined Michigan State in the past. It’s been clear in good years and bad.

More: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald wary of digging another hole early vs. Michigan State

Back in 2013, the Spartans were still searching by the time October rolled around and responded by tearing through the Big Ten and reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years. It’s worked the opposite way, as well, evidenced by 2016 when the Spartans didn’t win a single game in October.

There’s no doubt that how the next four weeks play out — three home games vs. Northwestern, Michigan and Purdue as well as a trip to Penn State — will set the course for Michigan State.

“Then you chase in November,” Dantonio said. “You chase championships, you chase bowl games or you chase whatever in November. So these next four weeks are critical weeks, I think, for our football team. We got to get some players back who are hurt, I think we're going to do that.”

Despite the loss last week of wide receiver Cody White to a broken hand, the Spartans are hoping to get several key players back this week, including running back LJ Scott and wide receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor.

That will go a long way in establishing the Spartans’ identity, one Dantonio hopes he’s seen before.

“(In 2013) we lost to Notre Dame and then I think we started (Big Ten play) with Iowa,” he said. “We started developing an identity and coming out in November we were playing our best football. That's what you want to have happen. You want to play your best football through November.”

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Back on the sidelines

Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is in his first season running the defense on his own after three seasons of sharing the co-coordinator title with Harlon Barnett, who left in the off-season for Florida State.

Tressel, who has also coached the linebacker in his time with Dantonio, has always been on the sidelines on game days. But Dantonio likes his coordinators up in the coaches box, leading to some back and forth so far this season. Tressel was on the sidelines for the opener against Utah State but was in the box at Arizona State. He’s been back on the sidelines for the last two games.

Part of the move back to the field has to do with Tressel’s role with the punt team, a critical spot with fifth-year senior Jake Hartbarger injured and the Spartans using a couple of inexperienced kickers.

“It’s been fine,” Dantonio said. “We got a lot of guys up top, we got different people up top. Bottom line is, communication-wise, and I was concerned is calling the defense in the heat of the moment difficult, how difficult that is? That was difficult for me as coordinator, so I just want to make sure that we're doing everything to the best of this football team.

“But punt is a very, very important play and I want him downstairs for that. He's been our guy that handles that for 15 years. So that's the staple.”

DB Scott 'close' to returning

Dantonio revealed on Sunday that sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott suffered a meniscus injury early in preseason camp and that it was repaired, leading to a 2-3 month recovery.

More:Injuries, opportunities mount for Michigan State

On Tuesday, Dantonio said Scott is still not practicing but “he’s very close.”

It’s led to some shuffling in the secondary as sophomore Dominique Long is now listed at cornerback, moving over from safety, though that could change if freshman cornerback Kalon Gervin sees action soon.

“He’s sort of the fifth safety for us and now the fifth corner. Maybe the sixth corner depend on if we're playing Kalon, which I think he's another guy that will eventually we will play this year,” Dantonio said. “But Dom, we're just trying to sort of be both right now, to be that fifth or sixth guy at both positions.”

… Dantonio said he thinks sophomore receiver Cam Chambers, who suffered an undisclosed injury at Indiana, will be back this week.

… Dantonio also believes freshman defensive lineman Jacob Slade, who saw action in the opener, will play again this season but likely not more than four games to save his redshirt.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau