Michigan State seeks its 'best football' at Northwestern (Oct 28, 2017)
When Michigan State last visited Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., the Spartans were led by Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford, and were en route to a 13-1 season capped by a Big Ten conference title.
However sweet those memoires may be, they are no doubt clouded by more recent memories of Northwestern, as the Wildcats defeated the Spartans 54-40 in 2016, a season that marked the Spartans' worst finish in coach Mark Dantonio's 11-year tenure.
"I think last year, there were a lot of different things going on," said Dantonio, who missed bowl eligibility in 2016 for the first time in 10 seasons following a 3-9 record. "When you look out there right now, you really only have a couple guys that played last year. The rest are all new, and I think they're playing with a lot of confidence and playing fast."
As the 16th-ranked Spartans (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) prepare for Saturday's road test at Northwestern (4-3, 2-2), few are less surprised by Michigan State's quick return to relevance than Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"I've really been impressed, when you pop on the tape, in all three phases," said Fitzgerald, who has a 3-6 career record against the Spartans.
"It's no surprise to us that (Michigan State) has turned things back around. ... We're going to need a great week of prep and a great performance by us. We need to be more consistent across the board for us to compete, so it should be a heck of a challenge for us."
While modesty is to be expected in the face of a Top 25 opponent, Northwestern is playing with plenty of confidence, too.
The Wildcats have won back-to-back Big Ten games after an 0-2 start to conference play. Northwestern handled Maryland 37-21 on the road, and last week closed out a thriller against Iowa, defeating the Hawkeyes 17-10 in overtime.
"The offense as a whole is starting to click a little bit," senior wide receiver Macan Wilson said. "Once we get things rolling, I think we've been doing a better job of keeping it rolling a little bit. It's fun to see all that work we've been putting in come to fruition."
Over the last three games, Wilson has 14 catches for 160 yards -- both team bests in that stretch. By comparison, Wilson had only three catches for 21 yards in the previous three contests.
"They're playing with a lot of confidence and they've got a lot of good players, so it's going to be another tall task for us," Wilson said of Michigan State. "Offensively, we're going to try to come out and hopefully get off to a better start than we did last week. But we saw a lot of good things on Saturday that we're just going to look to keep rolling."
Michigan State is seeking its fourth 5-0 start to conference play in school history. The only other such starts in school history -- 1965, 1966 and 2013 -- were compiled by eventual conference championship teams.
Despite its success this season, including an upset over in-state rival and then-No. 7 Michigan on Oct. 7, Dantonio insists Michigan State is only getting started.
"I don't think we've played our best football game yet as a team," Dantonio said.
"(Quarterback) Brian Lewerke has not been fully on yet. We've not run the ball fully. We've not gone through a game where everything is going right for us. We need to have one of those football games as we get here in the second half of the season."
Michigan State boasts the top-ranked defense in the Big Ten, allowing 262.1 total yards per game, and ranks in the top five in all defensive categories. However, the offense is still finding its rhythm, averaging 22.7 points per game, which ranks 12th in the conference.
The Spartans defeated Indiana 17-9 last Saturday in a defensive scrum but trailed the Hoosiers for much of the game before getting a pair of second-half touchdowns.
Lewerke has completed 120 of 202 passes for 1,362 yards, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Northwestern is led by quarterback Clayton Thorson (1,688 passing yards, fourth-best in the conference) and running back Justin Jackson, the school's career leading rusher.
Defensively, Northwestern has made steady progress in recent weeks. The 10 points it surrendered to Iowa were the fewest points allowed since a 9-7 loss to Illinois State on Sept. 10, 2016.
Cornerback Alonzo Mayo said he feels like the defense is improving every game, and is ready for another top-25 test.
"It's all about how you respond," Mayo said. "It's something that we talk about a lot as a team. Just making sure that, if something goes wrong, which every once and a while it will, just make sure you respond and come back and fight harder the next play."