It's a 'beautiful thing': Spartans believe they haven't peaked
East Lansing — At the halfway point of the college football season, it’s fair to start drawing some conclusions about what type of season a team is having or is going to have.
At the same time, there’s also the reality so much can change over the final six games.
Coming up with those conclusions about No. 18 Michigan State is no simple task. To say the Spartans have turned things around quicker than most believed is probably an understatement after they tumbled to a 3-9 record last season and had their share of issues off the field.
The first half has been great — five wins against just one loss, an unbeaten record in the Big Ten and one win from bowl eligibility. There have been big jumps from players getting their first shot at extensive playing time while 13 true freshmen have played and most have made significant contributions.
Where the Spartans (5-1, 3-0 Big Ten) go from here will truly tell the story. It will reveal whether Michigan State has quickly vaulted itself back among the best teams in the conference.
What is clear entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff with Indiana is Michigan State, as well as it has played, has plenty of room to improve.
“I don't think we've peaked yet,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think we're a football team that's still growing. There may be some dips in there as we go, but we are so young, we're not physically dominant yet with certain guys because they're still young. They're going to grow. We're talking years now. We're not talking in the next two weeks. Their experience is going to grow, as well.
“I think we've not peaked, even this season. We haven't played our best football game yet. That's the beautiful thing about this. We haven't hit on all cylinders yet.”
The fits and starts of a young team have been most evident offensively through the first six games. Turnovers were an epidemic early in the season but they’ve started to tail off, even with a pair of lost turnovers last week at Minnesota.
At quarterback, sophomore Brian Lewerke has had the standard inconsistencies of a young starter while the running game, which couldn’t get rolling early in the season, finally took off last week.
The Spartans gained 245 yards, with running backs LJ Scott going for 194 yards and Madre London 74.
“It means a lot to get it going,” center Brian Allen said. “We had struggled the last couple games so we needed to run the ball if we wanted to win. We kind of did it whenever we wanted to and it was nice to turn that on. Hopefully, we can bring that momentum and keep moving forward with it.”
The most consistency through the first half has been from the defense that ranks fifth in the nation. But that unit hasn’t been perfect, allowing 21 fourth-quarter points last week.
Like the entire team, the defense understands there’s plenty of room to improve over the final six games of the regular season.
“We’re just going to move forward,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “There’s no time to step back.”
There will be no stepping back this week or when the schedule really gets tough in a couple of weeks with back-to-back games against Penn State and Ohio State.
But considering where the Spartans are coming from and what they’ve done to turn things around this quickly, the approach isn’t going to change.
“When we didn't succeed in doing that last year, there was pain in that,” Dantonio said. “I think everybody looked at themselves, every coach, head coach included, especially me, but every player I think also did that. Every incoming player did that. I think they made a commitment to saying, ‘OK, we're going to do what we have to do, give of ourselves a little bit more, whatever we got to do.’ However you shake it out, there was just a little bit more grit. That's what we did. That's our approach right now.”
It seems certain to end with a trip to a bowl game after a one-year absence, but everyone in the program agreed that’s not the ultimate goal. Michigan State expects to compete for championships and 2017 could be proving to be exactly that.
There’s plenty more football to be played, but the start is hard to complain about. Keeping that momentum will be the next step.
“My satisfaction level is 80 percent,” Dantonio said. “We're not there yet. We're halfway through the season. I'm not really ready to sit there and say, ‘OK, we've done this and done that.’
“There's a lot of football left to play. We need to understand as a program we're only as good as our last play or our last game. We need to grind it out every single day. That's the message to our players.”