Matt Charboneau and Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News talk about their key takeaways and observations from Michigan State's 28-14 victory. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
East Lansing — They pounded like they used to, like they’re supposed to against this type of competition. They hit and ran and played power football, and maybe in the larger landscape, it doesn’t mean a ton.
But to the Spartans, this 2-0 start means more than most. In the process of resetting themselves, their minimum baseline for success should be to solidly handle MAC opponents, and that’s what they’ve done. They controlled a good Western Michigan team 28-14 Saturday, and did it with elements they rarely showed last season.
They hit the quarterback. They stuffed the Broncos’ respected running game. In victories over Western Michigan and Bowling Green, the Spartans’ defense didn’t allow a touchdown. It has five total sacks, nearly half its total of last season (11), when the team’s identity was stripped away. It’s too early to say Michigan State is regaining its trademarks — we’ll know more after their bye, when they host Notre Dame in two weeks — but this is a decent, necessary start.
Now, can the Spartans expect their nifty quarterback, Brian Lewerke, to run for a 61-yard touchdown every week? Of course not. But his mobility is a weapon, and perhaps a symbolic sign the Spartans might get back to using their legs, on offense and defense.
The first thing they had to do after the 3-9 disaster was stop the bleeding. And then they had to stop the run. They did it to the Broncos, who rumbled for 263 rushing yards in a tight loss to USC the previous week, but gained 116 Saturday and rarely threatened. Western Michigan has three fine backs, as well as a fantastic weapon in Darius Phillips, who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
Phillips also yanked the ball out of Hunter Rison’s hands and raced 67 yards for a score, meaning all three touchdowns against Michigan State this season have come on returns. That’s something Mark Dantonio surely wants to shore up, but this is something he surely was happy to see — a defense hitting with force and playing with energy.
Dantonio called his team’s early performance “very gratifying,” and he has ample reason to be pleased, considering nobody really knew what to expect. Michigan State outgained Western Michigan 457-195, after outgaining Bowling Green 465-212 in the opener. Two similar displays of punishment.
No coronation yet
“The defense played outstanding,” Dantonio said. “We’re getting pressure, playing good coverage, but it’s a little soon to start crowning our defense. We’re playing well thus far.”
Dantonio estimated the Spartans have used 20-22 players on defense, including lots of young guys, and they’ll keep churning them through. The Broncos converted a measly one of 15 third downs, although they made it a little interesting on a late drive when they converted three fourth downs. The Spartans stuffed the fourth fourth-down attempt, and the game was over.
Nose tackle Raequan Williams was pushing up the middle all game. Linebacker Andrew Dowell had a sack and was all over the field. And before anyone minimizes a two-touchdown victory over a MAC team, remember what the Broncos did just last week in Los Angeles, and just last season, going 13-1.
They were only a seven-point underdog in this one.
“Beating teams like Bowling Green and Western are things we should do,” Dowell said. “Getting pressure on the quarterback was a huge thing we focused on this offseason. We’re not gonna take our foot off the pedal. Our confidence is very high.”
There was a perception the Broncos could physically push with the Spartans, and their runners had some moments. But quarterback Jon Wassink was hit often, and chased into bad throws. And that’s really where any rebound must begin for Michigan State, with defensive aggression.
Coordinator Harlon Barnett said there have been schematic tweaks, and players talked about renewed emphasis on footwork and technique. We’ll see how it holds up against bigger opponents, but remember, it didn’t hold up against virtually anyone last season.
“We feel we’re getting a lot of pressure up front with the inside guys,” linebacker Chris Frey said. “We talk about it constantly — destruction.”
In fact, whichever defensive player wreaks the most destruction — loosely defined as pushing into the opponent’s backfield — gets to carry the Destruction Sledgehammer for a week. Yes, it’s literally a hammer. And yes, it’s figuratively something the Spartans didn’t wield last season.
They brought it out on offense too, especially after Western Michigan’s Tim Lester made a bizarre coaching decision in the fourth quarter. After a personal foul on Michigan State’s Cole Chewins, the Spartans faced either a fourth-and-1 from their 45, or a third-and-16 from their 30. Lester opted to decline the penalty, and the Spartans gladly accepted the gift. They went for it and LJ Scott rumbled 44 yards, then scored moments later and it was 28-7.
Western Michigan was the team that came in with the running game credentials, but it was Michigan State that sledgehammered for 296 yards rushing.
“I thought our guys played extremely well,” Dantonio said. “Every time something went down, we seemed to answer.”
Two weeks, two solid answers. No, they didn’t beat opponents from Power Five conferences, and they weren’t boasting about making statements. This wasn’t a verbal response. It was a physical response, precisely what the Spartans needed to show.