After losing 16-13 to No. 23 Arizona State and barely beating Utah State 38-31, the bye week for 24th-ranked Michigan State (1-1) came at a crucial time.
The Spartans looked worn down from West Coast, up-tempo offenses they faced in the first two weeks of the season.
Add in a few key injuries combined with poor red-zone efficiency — only scoring five touchdowns on 10 trips to the red zone — and it can frustrate a team. And Coach Mark Dantonio knows it.
“That is frustrating, but there are reasons behind that: Some of them are physical, some of them are mental, some of them are coaching errors,” Dantonio said at his weekly news conference Sept. 11. “The main thing I want to make sure is people understand, our people, the people in the tent, understand that this is all of our issues. It's not one particular group.”
This goes back to how Dantonio and others have praised the cohesiveness of this team, ever since MSU’s Media Day, and was reinforced after Dantonio said his team responded well after the loss to ASU.
But, now the real test begins, as the Spartans take on the Indiana Hoosiers (3-0) to start Big Ten play.
It’s also the third-straight night game for MSU, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on BTN. Which according to Dantonio, is something he expected to happen.
“Two of our scrimmages in the summer were at night knowing we would experience this, so we'll prepare ourselves accordingly,” Dantonio said. “We're just going to play them when we're supposed to play them and get excited about an opportunity to do that.”
Saturday night’s game is also an opportunity to hit an on-field restart button on this season.
While narrowly beating Utah State and falling flat against Arizona State isn’t the start MSU wanted, it was in nonconference play, as opposed to Big Ten. This allows you to see your strengths and weaknesses - especially against an unfamiliar Sun Devils team Dantonio said “hung around late" - without hurting your chances to play in the Big Ten Championship game.
“Obviously not scoring in the goal-line area, in the red zone, third down hurt us a little bit,” Dantonio said. “Thought we played pretty well on defense, didn't have a touchdown scored against us throughout three quarters of the game and then we gave up one late.”
This is what playing tough, nonconference games allows you to do: Dissect your team and know what to work on going forward.
If the Spartans fell to the Hoosiers instead of the Sun Devils, one could argue real concerns on whether this team will reach its expectations this season, and if it could bounce back from a back-breaking loss.
Luckily for MSU, it didn’t. It was just another road nonconference loss early in the season, similar in 2013 at Notre Dame and 2014 at Oregon. The results of those two seasons: A Big Ten Championship win against Ohio State followed with a Rose Bowl win against Stanford on January 1st, 2014, and a Cotton Bowl win against Baylor on January 1st, 2015 .
So based on history, there’s still hope of big success for this team.
A loss at Indiana to start off the Big Ten season, however, could be the beginning of a much different season.
Look at the 2012 and 2016 season, the last two times MSU fell in its opening Big Ten game. In 2012, the Spartans returned 16 of 21 starters and went 7-6 (3-5 in Big Ten) and went 3-9 (1-8 in Big Ten) in 2016 — the first losing season under Dantonio.
Which means Saturday night is crucial. Either this team can go forward with momentum on its side, or make it even tougher for the Spartans to reach their goal of a Big Ten Championship.
“We look forward to that challenge,” Dantonio said.