The schedule forces Michigan State to take a step back this week. If the Spartans want to remain in the rankings, they can’t afford to take an even bigger step back.
Michigan State opened its Big Ten schedule on Saturday night with a 35-21 road victory over Indiana following a bye week.
Before the No. 21 Spartans can fully concentrate on competing for a conference championship, they must turn their attention to in-state foe Central Michigan in a nonconference contest. They’ll host the Chippewas on Saturday afternoon.
“That’s not a perfect scenario,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “I’d rather play our out-of-conference games and then go into it. But you know who you’re going to play going into (the season), so you need to prepare yourself mentally and focus accordingly.”
Michigan State (2-1) already stumbled against an unranked opponent, losing at Arizona State 16-13 in its second game of the season.
On that night, the Spartans gave away a fourth-quarter lead. History nearly repeated itself after they built a seemingly safe 21-point advantage against the Hoosiers. Indiana crept within seven points with 3:28 remaining before Spartans freshman receiver Jalen Nailor scored on a 75-yard end around to give them some breathing room.
Michigan State overcame four turnovers and a spotty running game, two things that Dantonio seeks to improve upon in the final non-conference tuneup.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke was intercepted twice and also lost one of two fumbles. For the season, Lewerke has completed 66 percent of his passes but his TD-to-interception ratio is just 5-to-4.
“He tries to carry the load,” Dantonio said. “He tries to make plays sometimes when he needs to throw it away. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. I still think he makes a lot of plays for us, a ton of plays for us and he’s delivering the ball to a very large extent on time and in the right place.”
MSU running backs Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson combined for just 57 yards on 22 carries. Usual workhorse L.J. Scott missed the game with an ankle injury, though Dantonio expects him to play this Saturday.
The Spartans’ biggest strength this season has been their rushing defense. They’ve held opponents to a nation-best 1.14 yards per carry. No other team has given up fewer than 2 yards a carry.
“I’m impressed with our focus and our energy and how we come to play,” Dantonio said. “We’ve stopped the run effectively, we’ve tackled well and we’re starting to pressure the quarterback more effectively.”
The Chippewas (1-3) lost to Kentucky, Kansas and Northern Illinois before besting Maine 17-5 last weekend. Junior quarterback Tony Lazzaro made his first career start against the Black Bears in an attempt to inject some life into a moribund attack.
It didn’t quite work out that way, as the Chippewas mustered just 177 yards of total offense. But Lazzaro did pass for a score and run for another and the defense did the rest.
“It was good to see us get a little bit of rhythm there and move the football, but we’ve got to get healthier on offense and we’ve got to be more consistent,” Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said.
Bonamego knows his team will have to play its best game this season just to prevent a blowout. His offense is averaging a paltry 15 points per game.
The opportunity to play a high-profile in-state opponent should give the Chippewas a mental boost.
“I think it means more to the in-state kids on both teams than maybe to the out-of-state kids,” he said to the Detroit Free Press. “But any time you have a chance to play a Big Ten team or any of the Power 5 or the autonomous conferences, it’s always a challenge for all of us here in the MAC (Mid-American Conference), and it’s something that we gear up for.”
Central Michigan has given Michigan State trouble in the past. The Chippewas pulled an upset at Spartan Stadium as recently as 2009, but the Spartans have won the last three meetings and now lead the all-time series 7-3. They last met in 2015, and Michigan State won that game 30-10.
The Spartans are 41-6 against current members of the MAC.