Dienhart: New year, new Michigan State Spartans in 2017

Dienhart: New year, new Michigan State Spartans in 2017

The Spartans needed this. No one was quite sure how good this team was entering Saturday’s tilt vs. Iowa.

But Michigan State players will lay their heads on their pillows tonight knowing things may be OK this season coming off what can best be described as a workmanlike 17-10 victory over Iowa in East Lansing.

The Spartans are 3-1. And, get this: The three victories match last year’s total. And MSU also has matched its Big Ten win total from last year already, too. Hard to believe just four games in, MSU has done all that. That’s how bad 2016 was in East Lansing.

But this is a new year. And these are new Spartans.

Iowa is a good team. Heck, it may be the second-best squad in the Big Ten West. So, MSU should feel good. This comes a week after Michigan State got ripped at home by Notre Dame, 38-18.

The Spartans had nine penalties for 97 yards against Notre Dame. MSU had three turnovers, too. The Spartans won the battle of the stat sheet vs. ND, outgaining Notre Dame 496-355. And Michigan State won the time of possession. Still, the Spartans lost because of mistakes. Questions hung over the program.

“Statistics can lie to you,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told the media after the ND loss. “We had too many penalties. We didn’t contain the quarterback. Too many loose plays… Gotta get off the field on third down … Again, penalties. Critical penalties.”

The Fighting Irish are good, though. Very good. Losing to Brian Kelly, who may be coaching for his job coming off a 4-8 season, is no shame this season. Notre Dame’s lone loss so far in 2017 was a close one in South Bend vs. Georgia, which could be a College Football Playoff team.

Michigan State cleaned up some things vs. the Hawkeyes. The Spartans notched 300 yards of offense and yielded just 231. Best yet: MSU didn’t have any turnovers, but it did commit nine penalties.

The Spartans are a young team this season, so there have been growing pains this first month of the season. Michigan State already has played 14 true freshmen, which are five more than the Spartans have played in any season under Dantonio. The Spartans start 12 underclassmen and have 36 underclassmen listed on the depth chart (22 freshmen and 14 sophomores). And they have 76 underclassmen on their roster compared to just nine scholarship seniors.

Get the picture?

The staff can build around QB Brian Lewerke, who is an effective leader and emerging talent. He entered the day as the team’s leading rusher, averaging 68.8 yards per game. He also was the conference leader in total offense, averaging 319 yards per game. Lewerke starred, hitting 18-of-28 passes for 212 yards and two TDs. Time and again, Lewerke found Felton Davis III, who set career highs with nine catches for 114 yards and two TDs.

Lewerke also paced the team with 42 yards rushing. Still, it would be nice to get more from the running backs, especially LJ Scott.

And then there is the defense, which looks like it could be a cut above. The unit yielded its first touchdown of the season last week against the Irish after not allowing any in the first two games. While Notre Dame was able to get some big plays against the Spartans, MSU sat on Iowa today in allowing just one TD and 19 yards rushing on 25 carries.

It’s all about burying last year’s fall from grace. In 2015, MSU was Big Ten champ and a playoff participant, but it stumbled to a 3-9 mark last season that included a stupefying seven-game losing streak. In fact, Michigan State lost nine of its last 10 games. The Spartans missed the postseason for the first time since 2006 (4-8 record), ending a nine-year run. And it was MSU’s first losing season since going 6-7 in 2009.

The problems for Michigan State were numerous, beginning with uneven play in the trenches on both sides of the ball. And the offense struggled to replace quarterback Connor Cook, as three different quarterbacks made starts—Tyler O’Connor, Lewerke and Damion Terry. And on and on it went in a very disappointing season in East Lansing for Dantonio, his 10th on the job.

But that was then, and this now. And Michigan State could be a factor in the rugged Big Ten East. No, the Spartans don’t figure to win the division. But Michigan State may have a say in who does beginning next week with a trip to Michigan. The Spartans also play host to Penn State on Nov. 4 and travel to Ohio State the following week.

Keep your eyes on this Michigan State club.

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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