They might have begun as a question mark, but by the time the game was over, they were the heroes.
The MSU defensive line shut down Western Michigan's offensive star and abused its quarterback. The only problem was the coverage behind them.
They held the Broncos to only six yards rushing and sacked quarterback Chad Munson five times but allowed 333 yards passing.
"We can't afford to blitz and not cover anybody," head coach John L. Smith said. "We made a bunch of mistakes, which is good. But we definitely have things to work on to make us better."
Junior defensive tackle Matthias Askew came into the game as a backup but emerged as the defense's star. The 6-foot-6 junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., moved ahead of captain Brandon McKinney, also a junior defensive tackle, into the starting lineup after his four tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and a pass deflection in Saturday's win. He only had one career sack in his first 22 games.
"I think Matthias was the big surprise on defense," senior linebacker Mike Labinjo said. "I don't think he could have done it without any of his teammates."
Askew lost his starting position to senior defensive tackle Kyle Rasmussen earlier in fall practice, and after a strong performance on Saturday, he pushed his way back into the starting rotation again. The former PrepStar All-American, who missed the end of his freshman season with a knee injury, started only five games last season.
The Spartans held WMU running back Phil Reed to only 59 yards on 14 carries, while the rest of the team lost 48 yards on four carries.
The high intensity, blitzing defense finished with five sacks and two interceptions in a somewhat impressive opening performance.
Eight players rotated into the lineup and six recorded tackles on the defensive line. The biggest difference from last season, when the team sacked the opposing quarterback only 19 times, is its pressure upfield.
"I think the defensive line did a great job getting to the quarterback," senior bandit Monquiz Wedlow said. "If we have this kind of pressure on the quarterback all year, then we're going to have a pretty good season. They did a great job today, and they've been working their butts off, and they deserve it.
"We're trying to focus on winning the turnover battle this year 'cause it's going to win us a lot of games if we can get some turnovers on defense."
The problems came when the defensive front couldn't get to the quarterback and the pressure was placed on the defensive backs to make plays.
Some of the blitzing schemes left receivers wide open to make plays, which caused the coaches to change schemes several times. They played man-to-man coverages early, and moved to a zone in the second half.
"At the end of the game we played a lot of zone," Wedlow said. "They were running a lot of screens. When you run a zone that gives the corner a chance to come down and hit the screen right in the mouth.
"So that helped us out a lot, when the corner can step us, he was just looking for the screen, he can react to it a lot quicker."
The Spartans will have a week to work out the kinks in their pass defense before they face quarterback Luke McCown and another pass-friendly spread offense against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 13. Rutgers, MSU's opponent on Saturday, runs a pro-style offense with only two wide receivers.
The Big Ten season is approaching quickly, and a defensive performance such as Saturday's could prove troubling against the tough schedule the Spartans will face in the final five games of the season.
"It was like we got the win, we were happy we got the win, but we ain't satisfied, we want more," Wedlow said. "I mean, everybody said we were only going to win two games. So we are just out to prove everybody wrong and let them know that this is Michigan State and we are going to come to play and the defense is serious."