EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan State players shared mixed opinions Saturday about having a September bye week for the second straight season.
Coming off a 28-14 win over Western Michigan at Spartan Stadium, the 2-0 Spartans won’t play again until Sept. 23, when they will host Notre Dame for an 8 p.m. ET game. Once again, they’ll get a weekend off before facing the Irish.
“It kind of sucks that it’s early on in the year,” sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke said. Then he acknowledged that while he would prefer to have it during the sixth or seventh week, an extra week to get rested and healthy couldn’t hurt.
Junior linebacker Andrew Dowell agreed. Those who are nursing injuries (Coach Mark Dantonio won’t say) can rest up. Some will use the weekend off to head to Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief. Regardless, it’s a week without the toll that football takes on the body.
“We’ve got it right before a big game in Notre Dame under the lights, a big challenge that we’ll have,” Dowell said. “So we’ll get an extra week to prepare for that.”
Though the Spartans would prefer not to, it’s also an extra week to consider their 2-0 start in 2016. At their peak, they ranked eighth in the nation. Then it fell apart with seven straight losses. With that in mind, Dowell and his teammates decided to take this start for precisely what it is and nothing more.
“We came out and won two games,” he said. “We’re going to continue to go forward.”
They don’t want to discuss it, but we do. How does this team differ from 2016 after two games? How does it compare? Let’s break it down.
The benefits of a dual-threat quarterback could not be clearer. Lewerke can cause problems with the read-option, as shown by his 61-yard run against the Broncos. And when he’s sitting in the pocket with no open man in sight, he can extend plays and create yards with his legs that last year’s quarterback, Tyler O’Connor, could not.
“His dad keeps telling me that he’s a lot faster than you think,” Dantonio said with a laugh. “He is. If he’s got the ability to run, we’ll take it. I think he’s an additional weapon and he created.”
Michigan State has the same running back trio as a year ago in Gerald Holmes, Madre London and LJ Scott, so one can expect that group to be better than it was in 2016. The offensive line has spoken of a need for better run blocking, and yet the Spartans have amassed more than 500 yards in two games, a better mark than a year ago.
The concern has to be turnovers. So far in 2017, Michigan State has fumbled 6 times (of which 3 were lost) and thrown an interception. Seventeen of the 24 points allowed by the Spartans have come off of turnovers. Those numbers should concern fans more than anything the team showed through two games in 2016.
“We stressed the heck out of it,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We always have. Our success around here has been built on our turnover ratio throughout the year. … Obviously that’s unacceptable. It’s something we continue to stress, but obviously we need to do more of it, because you can’t do it.”
And in Michigan State’s biggest areas of concern last season, the differences between the 2016 and 2017 teams after two games is negligible. The Spartans have converted third downs at about a 50 percent clip, but they have been outscored in fourth quarters. Problems in both areas could rear their ugly heads later on.
Michigan State’s defensive line looks miles better than a year ago. The tackles have been getting a good push, and the pass rush finally showed up against Western Michigan, when the Spartans finished with 4 sacks for the first time in nearly two years. The aggressive veteran linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that.
“I think we have a physical one-two,” senior captain Chris Frey said. “We constantly say that we’re going to blitz angry. Once you blitz angry, you have to get back to your calm and cool and focus on your keys, focus on what you’ve got to do. I think that’s something that we’re really keying in on and doing a really good job with.”
The Spartans didn’t have that a year ago. Quarterbacks had plenty of time to throw. That in turn put too much pressure on the defensive backs, who looked a lot worse than they probably deserved.
Michigan State has a young group of defensive backs in freshman Josiah Scott (who notched his first career interception), sophomore Justin Layne, first-year starter Josh Butler and Tyson Smith, who has miraculously returned from a stroke. They’ve looked shaky for brief periods, but mostly very solid. The pass rush is a big reason for that.
The result? The Spartans defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown through two games. Even the field goal they allowed technically came off a turnover. This group has been as solid as one could ask for.
Michigan State has a top-notch punter in Jake Hartbarger, whom Dantonio praised after the opener and who seemed to step up even further against Western Michigan. Beyond that, questions remain.
The Spartans’ special teams have given up more points than their defense, thanks to Western Michigan superstar Darius Phillips’ 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. That alone makes the special teams more of an issue than a year ago to this point.
In short, Michigan State’s defense has made up for a lot of the flaws in the team’s other two phases. Does this team look more promising than in 2016? It’s difficult to say. But with a defense that can get itself off the field, the Spartans look a lot less likely to get worn out over the course of a season.
That proved to be the biggest downfall in 2016. As games went on, the Spartans got weaker. Staying healthy plays a big part in that, and that’s where the bye comes in. Use it wisely, Spartans.