Michigan State: ‘We’re bowling’ … and not finished

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Coach Mark Dantonio reached back to the 1970s in his memory bank to pull out a simile to describe No. 18 Michigan State’s 17-9 win against Indiana at Spartan Stadium.

“Tight as Dick’s hat band,” Dantonio said on Saturday night, referencing his defensive coordinator — Richard Bell — during his South Carolina playing days. And it seems as accurate a comparison as any. Michigan State’s 8-point win, a game in which it trailed until 6 minutes remained, turned out to be its widest margin during a 4-0 start to conference play.

That doesn’t matter when it comes to postseason prospects. Whether by 4 or 14 points, Michigan State (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) has found its way to bowl eligibility after winning three games a year ago.

“We’re bowling right now, just like Coach D just said,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett reiterated. “We’re bowling. I’d say it’s another great win. Our guys have bought in. We’ve worked our butts off this whole offseason.”

All that preparation for a little more oomph in the final stretch. Michigan State assumed a lead in every game it played in 2016 and held a second-half advantage in most of them. The Spartans just couldn’t finish. Now, it seems like, regardless of how poorly the offense plays, they can still find a way.

Credit “Baylor tempo” in practice. The Michigan State defense will run 28-30 plays in a seven-minute span, which amounts to around four plays per minute. The Spartans have reaped the benefits down the stretch.

“We’ve practiced that the whole year,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “We practiced it during camp, and it’s paying off for us because guys are staying fresh into the third and fourth quarter. It also pays tribute to the depth that we have on our defense. [When] guys get tired, guys step in and make plays.”

Michigan State’s go-ahead scoring drive proved to be the climax. After struggling for every rare first down until the fourth quarter, the Spartans strung together a series of big plays culminating in a 10-yard pass from quarterback Brian Lewerke to wide receiver Felton Davis. That touchdown midway through the fourth quarter was the first by either team, putting the Spartans on top, 10-9.

But that series of events never happens — at least not with the same significance — if not for what happened at the start of the quarter. A pass interference call put Indiana at the 11-yard line, and the Hoosiers handed it off to freshman running back Morgan Ellison on three straight plays. He managed 9 yards and Indiana kicked a field goal from the 2-yard line to make it 9-3 rather than 13-3.

“I think that was a big game changer,” defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk said, “and I think as a defensive unit, we knew that we could stop them if we could keep them out of the end zone, which we did tonight.”

The Spartans didn’t talk about reclaiming the Old Brass Spittoon on Saturday. They talked about heading back to a bowl game. Before last year, this would’ve been an expectation without celebration. Now, it means more.

“We didn’t get it last year,” Dantonio explained. “I think win No. 6 is big this year, especially 6-1. We get bowl eligibility and now we can work on our next goal, which is just finishing.”

Michigan State has done it with defense. It bent back almost to the point of cracking but stayed intact and even snapped back. Three times in four games, the Spartans have held their opponents below 100 yards rushing. In the fourth, Michigan managed 102.

All they needed was for the offense to come alive for one drive in the fourth quarter, and it did. Now, the Spartans have the spittoon in their grasp, but more importantly, a weight off their backs.

“It’s an exciting time,” Frey said. “But like you said, we’re going to continue to get better. After the year that we had last year, we’re excited to be bowl eligible, but that’s not good enough for us. It’s not where we want to be. That’s not the standards that the guys in the past have set for us.

“We’re just going to continue to work every single day to become a better team and keep growing our chemistry. Because with that, we’re just going to keep winning games. We’re going to keep leaning on each other in times of needs in games, and when we’re in games like this late in the fourth quarter, guys are stepping up. Guys are coming off the bench, making plays and it’s just huge for this team.”

The post Michigan State: ‘We’re bowling’ … and not finished appeared first on Land of 10.

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