Back-to-back wins against Iowa, Michigan serve as springboard for Spartans

Joey Ellis

Coming off a poor campaign last year, Michigan State entered the 2017 season with little to no shot to return to the ways of its Big Ten Championship-winning season just two years ago. After the Spartans went into Ann Arbor and upset in-state rival, No. 7 Michigan, they’ve gained significant acclaim within the college football world.

As previewed last week prior to their meeting with Michigan, a win over Jim Harbaugh and the highly touted Wolverines would send a strong statement to the rest of the football world, that coach Dantonio and MSU are already on their way moving on from last season’s disappointment.

After two very impressive wins against Iowa and Michigan, there’s something in this team that was absent all of last season. Something about this team feels more like a Mark Dantonio coached team, this team has the feels of the 2014 Rose Bowl group or 2015’s College Football Playoff squad.

This is one of the younger teams Dantonio’s had in his 11-year tenure at MSU, but it’s a team filled with raw talent slowly beginning to hit their stride as the Spartans suddenly find themselves sitting at 4-1 on the season.  

For a team who only recorded 11 sacks for the entirety of last season, the Spartans brought down Michigan quarterback John O’Korn four times on Saturday, matching last season’s numbers through only five games. The Spartan defense is ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, giving up a little over 258 yards per game, and is ranked 12th in rushing defense (97.2 YPG) and 13th in passing yards allowed (161.4 YPG).

Entering the season, Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State were the safe bets to win the Big Ten East and have a shot to play in the College Football Playoff. Now, with a win over the Wolverines, the Spartans suddenly find themselves on top of the Big Ten East with the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes, who will beat up on each other in just two weeks.

It’s tough to avoid looking ahead in the season, but with three upcoming games in which one would believe MSU to be favored to win, it’s hard not to look four weeks down the road in a potential top-15 matchup with Penn State.

When asked about looking ahead in the season, Dantonio maintained his one-game-at-a-time approach, “I think we’re probably capable of winning one game at a time or losing one at a time.”

“But I’ve said all along, ever since the summer, I like our football team. I like our enthusiasm,” Dantonio said.

The Spartans head to Minneapolis this week as they’ll take on the PJ Fleck-led Minnesota Golden Gophers under the lights in MSU’s second consecutive night game. The Gophers are losers of their last two games but are looking to get back on track in the Big Ten West race with a win over the 21st ranked Spartans.

“They’re a 3-2 football team right now with opportunities to be, really, 5-0,” Dantonio said. “It will be just another challenge for us as we go up there.”

The Gophers head into Saturday’s matchup ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards, averaging 190 yards on the ground per game. Their offensive line has only allowed one sack all season, that’s first in the Big Ten in sacks allowed.

The Spartans plan of attack will be similar to Western Michigan and Notre Dame, make quarterback Conor Rhoda beat them through the air. Completing just 55 percent of his passes, the Gopher aerial attack ranks 12th in the Big Ten, accounting for only 170 yards per game.

Minnesota has an explosive backfield in Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, and their only 100-yard-plus receiver on the season, Tyler Johnson is their go-to target through the air. The Spartans will need to generate a pass rush and commit to shutting down the run, forcing Rhoda to beat this Spartan defense through the air, a unit that allows only 161 passing yards a game.

On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota is stout in the run game, allowing only 114 yards per game, fourth-best in the Big Ten. The Gophers rank just behind Michigan State at sixth in the Big Ten, giving up only 17.2 points per game. MSU will have to be mindful of senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who leads the Gophers in tackles and ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 41 total tackles and one sack on the season.

Dantonio knows that Fleck and his Gophers will be ready to play Saturday night and is aware of  Saturday’s importance for both teams going forward. Minnesota is looking to right the ship and get back to their winning ways before their next meeting with Illinois.

MSU, sitting at 4-1, is looking to extend their winning streak to three games before heading back to East Lansing for their Homecoming matchup with the Indiana Hoosiers. Saturday’s game will kickoff under the lights at 8:00 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium on the Big Ten Network.