Foster: Spartans vulnerable now, but this shall pass

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Michigan State and Ohio State are the only two schools with first-place votes in the national college football rankings.

Ohio State is ranked first and Michigan State fourth. The Spartans have four 11-win seasons and took control of the title for best team in the state from Michigan seven years ago. Saturday, the Spartans proved they’re one of the best teams in the country, even though their 35-21 victory over Air Force at Spartan Stadium was filled with more slop than the bad weather that ducked in and out of East Lansing.

That did not make head coach Mark Dantonio happy after the game. He barked about mistakes and the lack of a running game.

The Spartans had “blows,” whatever that means. He was right, although Air Force (2-1) is a team that lives off making others look bad with its triple-option offense and small but aggressive defense.

The Spartans (3-0) will win next week during their final non-conference game against Central Michigan and their entire season should hinge on a do-or-die game against Ohio State in Columbus.

The Spartans are in command of their own destiny and they are a power program.

So why do I believe they have no chance of winning a national title?

A good part of it is that I think Ohio State is the best team in the land, although it hardly looked like it Saturday against Northern Illinois, a game in which another starting quarterback was replaced. However, I’ve seen Michigan State beat a top-ranked Buckeyes team in Columbus before. So why can’t it happen again?

And I need to get it out of my mind that the national title begins in the SEC, even if it quite often seems that way.

Ohio State is in the same boat as MSU. The Buckeyes do not dominate opponents, they lose focus and they are still trying to figure out their offense, although J.T. Barrett is the best option at quarterback. Right now, Ohio State is vulnerable but so are the Spartans.

Cook does job for MSU

This is what the pre-Big Ten season is all about. You iron out the kinks and hope for better days.

If you want to begin a sure-fire argument around here, tell someone wearing maize and blue that the Spartans are elite. They shriek and laugh and call you a little brother lover.

I grew up behind the great blue wall that still flashes in neon lights that Michigan remains the best program in the state. It is a program of arrogance that gets beat up by the Spartans, yet still calls them “Little Brother.”

MSU has done Little Brother things in the past. It has played in bad bowl games, bungled games in the final minutes and decided that people such as John L. Smith and Bobby Williams were the best fits for the program.

Of course, Dantonio actually is, even though some TV people still struggle pronouncing his name.

MSU is transitioning before our eyes. The Spartans defense isn’t what it used to be, but this team will be measured more by its offense. I may not believe Connor Cook will become a good NFL quarterback, but he is exactly what MSU needs. He recovers from big blunders with big plays and big moments.

‘We have to improve’

Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge appears to be taking the next step to becoming great. He’s opened the season with three 100-yard games, and his eight catches, 156 yards and three touchdowns Saturday is his career best in more than just stats. He made spectacular catches and ran wonderful routes.

Michigan tight end Jake Butt is not the only tight end in the state. Junior Josiah Price caught his 15th touchdown pass, which ties Chris Baker for most career TDs at MSU.

MSU’s ground game stalled to 77 yards against Air Force -- a head-scratcher because running backs Madre London (17 carries, 40 yards) and LJ Scott (11 for 23) are solid, young backs. And maybe that is the key word. They are both young.

“I’m sure we could have recognized some things better, could have watched some things better and could have read some holes a little better,” co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman told reporters. “We have to improve.”

MSU in general must improve. And that will happen, too.

It won’t have “the blows” when it matters most.