EAST LANSING, Mich. — For four years, P.J. Fleck coached a short drive away from Michigan State. His Western Michigan team fell to the Spartans twice.
He knows Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s team as well as almost any coach in the Big Ten, despite being in his first year leading Minnesota. And when asked whether he was surprised by Michigan State’s 14-10 win over Michigan on Oct. 7, his response raised a few eyebrows.
“I think they beat ’em eight out of the last 10 times, so I don’t think you can be surprised at all,” Fleck said. “I think it’d almost be the other way. If Michigan beats Michigan State, you should be surprised in these times.”
— Spartan Sports Page (@SpartanSports) October 11, 2017
Fleck’s answer, whether he intended it or not, spoke to more than just the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. It summarized the state of the Michigan State program now that the Spartans stand at 5-1 and 3-0 in the Big Ten after beating Minnesota last Saturday.
What should we have expected of Dantonio’s team going into this year? Many looked to last season to the 3-9 on-field disappointment and the off-field disasters that accompanied it when four players were charged with sexual assault. Anything that could go wrong did, mostly through the Spartans’ own doing.
Fleck looked instead at the whole body of work. Under Dantonio, Michigan State hadn’t missed a bowl game until 2016. That’s nine straight years in the postseason. They had won an absurd 65 games in the six years leading up to 3-9. Playing the numbers game, it seemed a whole lot more likely the Spartans would be successful in 2017 than not. So far, that has rung true.
“It speaks to the tradition that we have here,” Dantonio said of the hot start. “2015 was not, ‘Oh hey, they won a championship in 2015. Wonder how they did that.’ We’ve won others. We’ve won a lot of football games here. The expectation is, the foundation was to win football games, to go to bowl games.”
And Michigan State has done this before, if not to the same extent. After a relatively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012, the Spartans needed to retool. They put in a new starting quarterback, Connor Cook. They replaced star running back Le’Veon Bell with Jeremy Langford. They lost defensive end William Gholston but found eventual starter Shilique Calhoun. And they turned 7 wins into 13 while winning a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl.
And the 2016 team, in all fairness, wasn’t that far away from more victories. It led at some point in all 12 games. In eight games, it led in the second half. The Spartans already have had a game in 2017 in which they didn’t lead at all. The difference is that they have begun to finish.
“This game is about the inches that you find,” Dantonio said. “We’ve always been able to find the inches here to be able to climb back in there and win a football game, and maybe this year we’ll finding those inches again. But you’ve got to make plays down the stretch. Even if you give up some, you still have to make a play down the stretch. We’ve been able to make them.”
The Michigan State offense hasn’t offered a whole lot, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in total offense but 13th in scoring. Even Rutgers has scored more points. But when the Spartans have needed yards through new full-time starting quarterback Brian Lewerke, they have gotten them. Some way, somehow.
But mainly, this team has won for the same reason past Dantonio-coached teams have won: defense. Through five games, Michigan State had allowed only 41 second-half points. Minnesota’s 21-point fourth quarter sullied those numbers, and yet the Spartans still found a way to win.
This season came with uncertainty, mostly on the defensive side. Michigan State lost Malik McDowell on the defensive line, Riley Bullough at middle linebacker and four starters in the secondary. But former walk-on defensive end Kenny Willekes hasn’t been surprised by his defense’s success, and his words likely reflected the feelings of Michigan State as a whole — and maybe even P.J. Fleck.
“We knew the guys we had in our room,” Willekes said. “We knew the guys we had in our defense. We saw it in spring ball. We saw it all fall camp. We were just waiting for an opportunity to show others what we had.”