Michigan State takeaways: Spartans show finishing touch, resiliency
Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 31-10 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
Fight for the finish
The shift in offensive production from last week’s loss to Arizona State was abrupt, and it can be displayed in one aspect of the game. Against the Sun Devils, the Spartans moved past the 50-yard line eight times but managed to come away with points only once. In the victory at Northwestern, Michigan State moved into Wildcats territory six times and scored on five of those trips, the only time it failed to put points on the board is when Matt Coghlin missed a 40-yard field goal on the opening drive of the second half. Michigan State also was a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns and adding a 26-yard field goal from Coghlin, and it was able to extend drives, converting on six third downs as well as its only fourth-down attempt.
“We were getting good field position,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “Last week, it was a matter of one play that we missed that could have been a difference in the drive and we converted that one play this week. There were some third-down (conversions) and couple on the touchdown before halftime. That was a huge tone-setter going into the second half. So we were just able to finish a lot better and what we did last week.”
Collins solves MSU's short-yardage woes
The Spartans appeared to dodge a bullet when redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins was OK despite heading back to the locker room with an apparent injury in the second half. Collins returned to the sideline ready to keep playing, but the Spartans had put the game away, allowing freshman Anthony Williams and sophomore La’Darius Jefferson to get more work.
Before he left the game, Collins was continuing to establish himself as the No. 1 back, picking up 76 yards on 17 carries while opening the scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run. He didn’t have the big runs like he did two weeks ago against Western Michigan, but Collins was just as effective on short runs, finding creases to pick up first downs on second- and third-and-short. It’s those type of runs that keep drives going, and they were the type of plays Michigan State wasn’t getting on a consistent basis. With Collins beginning to carry the load, those plays are now becoming higher percentage for the Spartans.
No ordinary Joe
Joe Bachie called his play against Northwestern “business as usual.” But even for the first-team All-Big Ten player from a season ago, the way the senior played on Saturday was far from usual. It began with his 14 tackles, a career high, and ended when he intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter with Michigan State leading by four touchdowns. Bachie had a touchdown on his mind for a minute before deciding to duck out of bounds with the game already decided.
“All over the place,” Mark Dantonio said of Bachie. “He's a football player.”
That much has been clear from the day Bachie stepped on campus but he continues to prove it on a daily basis. His 9.8 tackles a game are fifth in the Big Ten, but leading a defense that is among the best in the nation means the production is spread out. So while the stats might not fully show it, there’s no doubting who is the heartbeat of Michigan State’s defense.
“Sudden change” is a phrase heard often around Michigan State’s defense. It almost always happens when there’s a turnover, either on special teams or by the offense deep in its own end. It’s at those moments when a defense proves its mettle, and it’s something the Spartans have made an emphasis throughout the Dantonio era. Saturday’s win over Northwestern featured the classic sudden-change scenario, and the defense’s response to it set the tone for the game. Michigan State had opened the game with a methodical touchdown drive then got a three-and-out on defense. But Cody White fumbled on the punt return, giving the Wildcats the ball at the MSU 27. Six plays later, Northwestern was second-and-goal inside the 1. Michigan State proceeded to stuff Northwestern on three straight plays, keeping the Wildcats off the board.
“That was huge,” Bachie said. “We try and pride ourselves on that. If they score a touchdown, maybe in that goal line it might be a completely different ballgame.”
As Michigan State often does in those situations, it responded, kept Northwestern off the board and controlled the game the rest of the way.
Sometimes it’s just coachspeak, and maybe it was early in the week when Dantonio promised his team would regroup after its loss at home to Arizona State. By Saturday afternoon in Evanston, it hardly mattered as Michigan State did exactly what its coach said it would by jumping on Northwestern early then putting the game away in the third quarter.
It’s hard to predict where this team goes from here just one game into Big Ten play, but it has at least proven it can be resilient. Odds are this won’t be the last test. After hosting Indiana this week, back-to-back road games with Ohio State and Wisconsin are next. That stretch will tell the tale, and once again, a team’s mettle will be tested. It passed the first test. Can it pass more that are sure to come?