Michigan State's Brian Lewerke, Elijah Collins and Joe Bachie talk about this weekend's matchup with Indiana. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Mark Dantonio has taken plenty from Nick Saban.
And why wouldn’t he? Saban has been one of the most successful coaches in college football history, winning six national championships including five at Alabama.
But before Saban was tearing up the SEC and turning the Crimson Tide into the premier program in America, he was the head coach at Michigan State from 1995-99, and his defensive backs coach was Dantonio.
Dantonio went from that spot on Saban’s staff to defensive coordinator at Ohio State where he won a national title before getting a head coaching job at Cincinnati and ultimately Michigan State. Along the way he picked up plenty from the men he worked for, but lately there’s been a lot of references to his time on Saban’s staff.
As No. 25 Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) prepares to host Indiana on Saturday, another Saban saying was pulled out as the Spartans looked to build on the offense’s performance in last week’s 31-10 victory at Northwestern.
“We need to be consistent,” Dantonio said. “I go back to what I said last week, consistency in performance. I roll my arms just like Coach used to do, but that's what he always said, and I believe it totally. You know, Coach Saban — consistency in performance — that's where you're going to have to do it over and over and over and be on the front end of things in a consistent basis.”
It’s certainly happened for Saban at Alabama, but this season’s Spartans are still striving for consistency in their performance. At least, that’s the case when it comes to the offense.
Michigan State managed just one offensive touchdown in the season-opener against Tulsa before exploding for 51 points in a win over Western Michigan. But the Spartans scored only seven points the next week against Arizona State before getting things going again last week at Northwestern.
“That’s what you’re working for every week,” offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. “Can you be consistent within a game? And every game can be different from who you’re playing, the physicality and what the lineup is and those kinds of things.
“I’m proud of how our guys responded after the Arizona State game.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews this week's game against Indiana at Spartan Stadium. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The overall numbers in terms of yards gained against the Wildcats weren’t eye-popping. Michigan State gained 337 total yards, but it was the efficient manner in which it played that was impressive.
The Spartans were 5-for-5 in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on four of those drives while settling for just one field goal. They also protected the ball with the only turnover coming on special teams and committed just two offensive penalties.
“We only had like 350 total yards, which wasn’t a ton, but we got the ball in good spots,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “We finished drives, scored touchdowns and I think we had 31 of 35 possible points in the red zone. We were able to finish, and in other games we weren’t.”
Finishing drives was probably the biggest change for an offense that totaled 404 yards in the loss to Arizona State but found the end zone just once.
“Every game it’s probably the little things,” Salem said, “and after the Arizona State game our big focus was to finish. You’re moving the ball, but the reality is you have to score. So in the last game we’re 4-for-5 (on touchdowns) in the red zone and we were able to finish drives. That’s the biggest part of it, finishing drives.”
While the offensive is getting into a groove, the recent woes from kicker Matt Coghlin have played a role in the lack of points. The junior began the season making his first seven field goals but was 0-for-3 in the loss to Arizona State and missed his fourth in a row when a 40-yarder against Northwestern went wide right.
Coghlin kicked a 26-yarder in the second half to end the skid, but Dantonio insisted he hasn’t lost confidence in a kicker that was named first-team All-Big Ten in 2018.
“I'm concerned that he missed a field goal but I'm confident in Matt,” Dantonio said. “He was the first-team All-Big Ten kicker last year and there's a reason he was that. He's been very good throughout summer camp, very good, probably missed two field goals the whole camp. But you get out there, the wind is moving a little bit and you get out there and you have to make them during games.
“But he has his confidence and if he's confident, I'm confident. He's a confident player.”
So while Coghlin works to get things straightened out, the offense hopes this week is the first time they string two solid weeks together. Indiana (3-1, 0-1) has played well defensively early in the season, ranking 26th in the nation in total defense (296.8 yards per game) and are limiting teams to 167.5 yards a game through the air.
That could lead to more work for a running game that has been slowly improving thanks to improved play up front on the offensive line and the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins.
“The key to being consistent is just try and be flawless in practice, limit the mistakes,” Collins said. “The team with the least mistakes is the team that’s gonna win, so try and do everything right. Obviously you’re gonna make mistakes, but just going out there, knowing what to do and control what you can control. At the end of the day we’ll be fine.”