East Lansing — Michigan State found itself in an unfamiliar position the fourth quarter on Saturday night.
The Spartans were rolling over Western Michigan, their offense clicking on all cylinders, finally complementing one of the best defenses in the nation.
“It’s probably bad to say but it feels like we had a little breathing room,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “But we score 21 points on our first three drives, that was amazing, and you can’t ask for anything else. … It was great to see. Running the ball, passing the ball. It was good.”
It was for coach Mark Dantonio, too.
“This is an easy job. That’s what I was thinking,” Dantonio joked Sunday during his weekly teleconference. “Never had it so good.”
Never might be a bit harsh, but it sure has been awhile since the Spartans found themselves in the position they were in against the Broncos. Western Michigan was able to muster a late touchdown, but it mattered little as Michigan State had the game locked up well before the start of the fourth quarter on its way to a 51-17 victory.
The Spartans piled up 582 total yards and the 51 points were the most since they scored 55 in a win over Penn State in 2015.
“We got what we asked for,” Dantonio said. “We got effort. We got great effort and we got great toughness and they came to play with enthusiasm. We focused on the moment.
“You give up zero sacks, have no penalties (on offense) and have a lot of explosive plays, good things are gonna happen.”
Their good things were many, something that hasn’t happened for the Spartans in a long time. The last time they put up big numbers and spent the fourth quarter watching the backups was the 42-17 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl to close out the 2017 season.
A seven-win season followed in 2018 as the offense played poorly all season and after the season-opening win over Tulsa, it didn’t look like much had changed.
However, that turned quickly against Western Michigan.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns while wide receiver Darrell Stewart caught 10 passes for a career-high 185 yards and a touchdown. The breakout star in the game was redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins, who gained 192 yards rushing on 17 carries in his first career start.
“A big night for Elijah Collins, obviously,” Dantonio said.
The big reason all three were so productive was the improved play of the offensive line.
Earlier in the week, Dantonio challenged his team’s toughness and effort with an eye toward the offensive front. Against Western Michigan, the cohesion started to show up as the holes were opening and Lewerke had time to throw.
The Spartans didn’t shuffle the line as much early in the game, though they did use seven players before the game got out of hand.
“It’s always a collective effort,” Dantonio said. “Tight ends are involved in this, play-calling is involved in this. You certainly have got to get on your guy from an offensive line standpoint. And you’ve got to have vision in terms of where you’re going with the ball sometimes. So, it’s all inclusive.
“What we need to get is consistency in performance and I think we’ll get that.”
The blowout win not only allowed the Spartans to breathe easy for once, it allowed them to get some young players in the game, including offensive lineman Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac, two true freshmen with high expectations.
“It’s the first step of giving them some game snaps,” Dantonio said. “I thought they both played well. They were impressive, they’re good athletes. They showed power, but the game is moving faster on game night.
“It remains to be seen how far they come, but we did use one game of their four and we have to make sure as we go forward if we play them more than four games it’s more like eight or nine games and it’s not five. We’ll be careful with that as we go but they are good players.”
Michigan State moved up a spot to No. 18 in the Associated Press rankings and now gets set to host Arizona State on Saturday. A win would make Dantonio the winningest coach in program history, surpassing Duffy Daugherty.
But Dantonio is more focused on the moment.
“I think being 2-0 is more important in the short term,” he said. “Maybe in the long term it’s not, but in the short term being 3-0 would be more important. It’s pretty much like I’ve said, it’s a moment in time that a lot of people can collectively say they were involved in this.
“But you feel better about things when everything is moving forward and that was a big win for us. Now we have the opportunity to focus on the next challenge.”