Trap game? Buckeyes, Badgers loom in the distance for Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – “We’re just trying to go 1-0 this week.”

“We take each week and each game one at a time.”

“This week’s game is the most important game.”

Ah yes, the standard response from a football team – coaches and players – when the game it is preparing for could be described as a “trap” game. It happens when bigger things loom just after facing an opponent many believe to be inferior.

Joe Bachie

That’s exactly the position No. 25 Michigan State finds itself in as it gets set to take on Indiana at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium for homecoming.

The Spartans (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) are coming off a satisfying road victory last week at Northwestern while Indiana finished up its non-conference play a game after getting blown out by Ohio State.

Clearly, Michigan State enters as the favorite. The only potential issue – the trap, if you will – is the fact the Spartans face arguably their toughest stretch after taking on the Hoosiers, a portion of the schedule that likely will determine if the Spartans will or will not be a contender in the Big Ten East. Two straight road games with Ohio State and Wisconsin come next, followed by an off-week, then a visit from Penn State.

So, is there any peeking ahead to what Michigan State will face throughout the month of October?

“We’re not looking at that game,” offensive coordinator Brad Salem said. “We’ve got a big game ahead of us. Once you enter the Big Ten season, it’s every single game and that’s got to be full concentration. Right now we have a big challenge ahead of us with Indiana this weekend.”

Just as we expected – no looking past the Hoosiers.

And quite frankly, that’s how it should be. Salem is right, there are rarely any easy weeks in the Big Ten. Sure, there are always a few teams that are struggling, but that’s never a guarantee against a potential upset.

What’s more important for Michigan State is the fact its offense came to life last week, helping get rid of the bad taste from the loss the week before to Arizona State. It provided a fresh start of sorts, and now the opportunity to begin the conference season with two straight wins before things really start to get tough is coming at just the right time for a team that’s building some confidence.

“Definitely,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said, when asked if two wins to open conference play was important. “After this game we’ve got a couple on the road that are difficult, so we went to try and go into that stretch going 2-0. Hopefully, that’s where we can be.”

To be in that position, Michigan State will need to see the same type of offensive performance it had in last week’s win at Northwestern. The Spartans were 5-for-5 in the red zone – four of the scores were touchdowns – and limited self-inflicted mistakes like penalties and dropped passes.

“I think we’re running the ball pretty well,” said Lewerke, who added he’s happy there’s no more talk of his injured shoulder, a topic that dominated the discussion last year. “I think the O-line has played pretty good. Last week there was a little pressure, but the first three games were pretty good, so they’re playing their butts off and we’re rushing the ball a lot better than we did last year.”

Defensively, the Spartans will need to do more of the same.

Of course, that never seems to be good enough for one of the best units in the country. Northwestern ran for 139 yards last week, and even if a decent chunk came against the backups, that’s not an acceptable number for Michigan State.

Nor was the fourth-quarter touchdown Northwestern scored.

“We certainly don’t feel like we played the run as well as we could in this past game,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “I think that our pass defense – knock on wood – has stepped up a notch, I really do.

“They know (the touchdown drive) doesn’t match our expectations, let’s put it that way. When we give up a touchdown with the 2s in the game, yeah, I’m just as upset as I am if we give up a touchdown with the 1s in the game. But again, it’s those level of expectations that makes the kids raise their level of play.”

The defense will have an extra challenge this week preparing for two quarterbacks.

Indiana (3-1, 0-1) won’t know who will be under center until game time as redshirt freshman starter Michael Penix’s status remains in question. He’s missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury and has been replaced by junior Peyton Ramsey, who has started the last two meetings with Michigan State.

“Peyton Ramsey has done a great job,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He's a gamer. He knows where to go with the ball. He gives you scramble ability. He understands the defenses he's reading.

“Penix is a very athletic guy. We haven't experienced him as much, so we don't really know, but we've seen him play and make plays, and he can take off with it.”

If Michigan State’s defense contains whoever is at quarterback, gets back to stuffing the run and gets another solid outing from its offense, then the quick start in the Big Ten will have been attained. The big games coming up next can start to come into focus and there will be nothing to look past.

“We took care of game one in the Big Ten,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Now we’ve got to protect the woodshed, take pride in winning in the woodshed, winning every home game we can. It happens to be Indiana this week and the mindset is we’re not really looking past that. When you look past, that’s when something can sneak up on you, so we have to be ready for Indiana.

“Consistency is how you win championships. If you’re up and down, that’s when you can have a lapse, that’s when you can lose a big game. In college football, you can’t lose many games and win a championship, so we have to be consistent all-around as a team.”

Indiana at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/760 AM

Records: Indiana 3-1, 0-1 Big Ten; No. 25 Michigan State 3-1, 1-0

Line: Michigan State by 14

Twitter: @mattcharboneau