All good just a year ago: MSU's rocky stretch began after last Notre Dame game

All good just a year ago: MSU's rocky stretch began after last Notre Dame game

Let’s go back to Sept. 17, 2016.

Remember that date? Michigan State fans probably do. Times were good back then. And anything seemed possible as the Spartans took on Notre Dame.

Michigan State was ranked No. 12 and thinking big. Why not? The Spartans were coming off a season of glory that had seen them win the Big Ten and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Spartans were 1-0, coming off a win vs. FCS Furman as they kicked off in South Bend, Ind., last season.

It turned out to be a glorious night for Mark Dantonio’s team, which took a 36-28 victory vs. the Fighting Irish. The Spartans’ record streak of being ranked would stretch to 45 consecutive weeks, dating to Oct. 27, 2013, with this triumph. There was celebrating along Grand River Avenue in East Lansing on this Saturday night.

“I thought our guys played very confidently,” Dantonio said after the game. “I’m not sure at the end if their coach was confident, totally. But we found a way and our guys kept playing.”

But, after the win vs. Notre Dame, it was all downhill from there for Michigan State, which would go on to endure a season to forget in Dantonio’s 10th season on campus.

Now, a year later, the Spartans find themselves once again unbeaten and harboring high hopes as they prep to take on Notre Dame. A lot has gone on since MSU beat the Fighting Irish last season under the Golden Dome. What will be the Spartans’ trajectory after this year’s meeting with the Irish?

“You know, what I’ve learned about our football team is that we’ll compete,” said Dantonio this week. “We’re a very excitable group. We have fun. We have a lot of fun. They enjoy practice. They enjoy playing. They enjoy getting ready for a football game.

“They sort of like their place right now. I think they like their place. We have to continue to just sort of take a step-by-step process here as we go through this and each challenge, every week brings a new challenge, and that’s the way it’s going to be the entire year. Every week will bring a new challenge and we have to be able to handle those challenges and take the good with the bad.”

There was a lot of bad last season. A lot.

After moving to 2-0 with the aforementioned win vs. ND last season, the Spartans lost seven in a row. A 49-0 triumph vs. Rutgers stopped the bleeding. But Michigan State would go on to lose its final two games to finish in a 3-9 heap. The 1-8 Big Ten record was heart-stopping for a program that had lost eight total conference games in the previous five seasons combined.

The list of things that went wrong for Michigan State was long, as the program endured the biggest win regression (nine) of any FBS school from 2015 (12-2) to 2016 (3-9).

– Quarterback play was inconsistent.

– The defense sprung leaks, allowing 27.8 points, which was the most Michigan State had yielded in a season since 2006.

– The pass rush was abysmal, as the Spartans finished last in the Big Ten with just 11 sacks.

– Worst of all: Michigan State was rocked by off-field issues that resulted in several players leaving the squad. It was a big blow for a program that prided itself on discipline.

Few knew what to expect from Michigan State as 2017 dawned. This is a young team.

“You sort of embrace what you have,” Dantonio told the media this week. “But I like our guys: The way they carry themselves; the way they compete every day; the way they come to practice, and how they have handled their business thus far.”

The team had a lot to prove, especially up front on both sides of the ball. And how would Brian Lewerke develop at quarterback? Would the secondary be OK?

Well, so far, so good, as the Spartans are off to a 2-0 start after opening with home wins vs. Bowling Green and Western Michigan before being off last week, giving Michigan State two weeks to prep for the Fighting Irish.

The defense has been outstanding. That unit which had only 11 sacks all of last season? It has five through two games in 2017. And the defense has allowed just three points all season, as the three touchdowns scored by opponents have come on two fumble returns and a kickoff return. Michigan State is No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (203.5 ypg).

The offense also is showing life. The run game has been effective, as the Spartans are No. 3 in the league in rushing (255.5 ypg). Last week vs. Western Michigan, Michigan State ran for 296 yards, which was the most it has had in a game since running for 330 yards against Indiana in 2014. LJ Scott bounced back from a bad performance in the opener vs. Bowling Green to run for 86 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass in the last game.

 

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Now, the competition takes a big step up vs. the Irish and coach Brian Kelly, who is on a bit of hot seat coming off a 4-8 season. ND is 2-1 coming off a mauling of Boston College, in which the Irish notched 611 yards with 515 coming on the ground.

There have been some classic games between these foes, who are meeting for the 77th time and the first time in Spartan Stadium since 2012. In fact, four of the last six meetings have been decided by eight points or less. Enjoy this meeting, as these teams aren’t scheduled to play again until 2026.

“I think our football team, we’re just taking things one step at a time as we go,” said Dantonio. “The first two steps have been completed. Now it’s a third step. Obviously you have a national game. It’s a little bit more intensity around it, I guess. … But we just keep taking steps.”

This step vs. Notre Dame is huge for Michigan State. Even more vital: How will the Spartans respond, win or lose?

It’s going to be interesting.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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