On Saturday night, Michigan State showed that it has indeed bounced back.
By beating Michigan, the Spartans thrusted themselves back into the B1G East conversation and back into national relevance. In one sloppy, defensive struggle, MSU did things that it couldn’t dream of in 2016. The Spartans dominated the turnover battle, they stopped the run and they finished.
It was the kind of victory that we’ve come to expect from Mark Dantonio’s teams. Well, at least prior to 2016.
Heading into the third week of conference play, MSU already has more B1G wins than it did last year. And let’s be honest. They were a bit more challenging than beating Rutgers at home.
So how did MSU go from playing in the Toilet Bowl to potentially competing for a B1G East crown in one season? That’s a complex question, especially when you factor in the horrific offseason the Spartans had. There’s certainly something to be said for getting rid of some bad apples, but for the sake of argument, let’s tackle that question from an on-the-field standpoint.
More specifically, let’s look at the numbers. They tell the story of MSU’s turnaround pretty well.
In my eyes, the most obvious improvement has been on the defensive side of the ball. Joe Bachie and Chris Frey look like first-team All-B1G players for a unit that’s been dominant in the early going.
Last year, the Spartans allowed 29 points per game in B1G play. This year, that number is at just 10 points per B1G game. Yes, it’s only two weeks, but consider this. With the exception of the Rutgers and Ohio State games, MSU allowed at least 24 points in every conference game.
The overall numbers obviously stick out. Allowing less points is usually a good thing, or so I’m told. There are a few reasons MSU has been able to accomplish that good thing so far.
Check out these key year-to-year improvements on the defensive side:
To repeat, all you have to do to win football games is don’t allow third-down conversions, get a bunch of tackles for loss, defend the run, defend the pass and not allow many fourth-quarter points.
Simple enough, right?
While the defense certainly deserves plenty of credit, MSU’s offense played a part in the fast start, too. Keep in mind that this was a unit that was held to 24 points or less in six of its final 10 games last year.
In three games against Power 5 teams this year (including Notre Dame), those numbers haven’t been any better. MSU is averaging just under 13 points per game against Power 5 foes. MSU won’t keep beating good teams if that continues.
But from a yardage standpoint, the numbers show that MSU has been moving the ball better this year than it did in 2016.
So while the scoreboard might not show it, MSU has improved offensively in terms of efficiency. If the Spartans could improve on their woeful 72 percent red-zone scoring (119th in FBS), they’d obviously have more concrete evidence of that improvement. With a young, capable signal-caller in Brian Lewerke, those numbers should continue to rise.
If I’m MSU, I’m encouraged by the fact that since blowing the Notre Dame because of turnovers — MSU actually out-gained a solid Irish offense — the Spartans have a 7-0 turnover advantage through two B1G games. Michigan didn’t exactly help itself by throwing in those horrendous conditions, but MSU made the plays it needed to and it didn’t take part in the turnover fest.
The numbers tell the story. The Spartans haven’t played at a championship level yet, but they have looked significantly better than they did last year. Nobody is saying that MSU is back to its 2014 or 2015 level, but the mentality seems to be there.
This program still has a long way to go to convince Desmond Howard and others that MSU is indeed a “national brand.” Lord knows last year’s fast start was quickly derailed, albeit earlier in the season. We have a larger sample size that would suggest MSU is capable of sustaining this year’s fast start. The Spartans could easily improve to 7-1 before that showdown vs. Penn State.
Saturday’s Michigan win clinched that MSU would, at the very least, not have another 3-9 season.
It appears the Spartans can finally put that number in their rearview mirror.