Going into week two against then-unranked Arizona State, Michigan State needed to limit penalties, slow down the passing game while the defense slowed down the running attack and the offensive line needed to improve.
In college football, the improvement from week one to week two is often thought of as one of the biggest a team can make throughout the season.
“You have a tangible thing you can look at, this is what is going on, this is what they do,” coach Mark Dantonio said during his weekly press conference Sept. 4. “You do your best on opening games. Opening games are a challenge sometimes.”
But for the 25th-ranked Spartans (1-1), the biggest improvement may come during the bye week after losing, 16-13, to the now-No. 23 Sun Devils.
MSU’s red-zone efficiency was bad, only scoring one touchdown in four trips within ASU’s 20-yard line. And that came after a 15-yard penalty was called on fullback Collin Lucas, which pushed the Spartans back to ASU’s 31-yard line and forced quarterback Brian Lewerke to hit wide receiver Cody White for a 31-yard pass.
"Well, what a difference a few inches could make,” Dantonio said after MSU’s loss to ASU. “Difference between happiness and unhappiness I guess you could say, so you look at the football game. Our inability to score in the red zone creeps up on us again.”
It’s tough to win a game scoring 13 points. It’s also tough to win when you score your first touchdown with 1:27 left in the third quarter.
“You got to score touchdowns,” Dantonio said. “Tough to win a game with 13 points, it’s tough to win a game with 16 points. You're always in the game, one play can flip the game.”
All while MSU’s defense kept ASU out of the end zone until 8:45 left in the fourth quarter. Given, defensive tackle Raequan Williams failed a scoop and score on a forced fumble by cornerback Tre Person that would’ve extended the Spartans’ lead.
Unlike in week one against the Utah State Aggies, MSU faced a more experienced team. A three-year starting quarterback in Manny Wilkins, a preseason All-American in wide receiver N’Keal Harry and a former NFL coach in Herm Edwards led the Sun Devils.
And Edwards said his team was surprised at halftime the game was so defensive.
“Our resolve, you know coming in at halftime, guys were a little bit questioning the fact that this was a defensive game,” Edwards said. “I think when you have a bonded offense like we do and in the first game you score all those points, they feel a little dejected when they don't score points. But it was a defensive game.”
Although MSU’s defense only allowed 44 combined rushing yards, it did allow Wilkins to throw 30-of-48 for 380 yards, a touchdown and an interception. And that’s not including the numerous downfield passes Wilkins missed throughout the game. I will say, however, cornerback Justin Layne did well against Harry, who could be the best receiver MSU faces all season.
Starting left tackle Cole Chewins played the opening MSU snap, then was taken out, which led to a rotation of Tyler Higby, Luke Campbell, Jordan Reid and Matt Allen, which has been proven to be ineffective so far this season and still lacks cohesiveness.
The statuses of running back LJ Scott, punter Jake Hartbarger and linebacker Tyriq Thompson are still unknown, but the issues, although few, are specifically known.
The offensive line needs to settle in, red-zone efficiency needs to improve and the defense needs to be effective in the pass and run game.
A nonconference loss to Arizona State is tough, but it’s not the end just yet. MSU was blown out by Notre Dame, 38-18, in Spartan Stadium in 2017 and beat the Fighting Irish, 36-28, in South Bend in 2016.
"One loss doesn't mean the end of everything,” safety Khari Willis said. “It's a nonconference loss, but it's not supposed to feel good. I don't think we'll try to numb anything there. I think we just have to go out and do what we do.”
So there’s still a chance for MSU to bounce back when the team goes back on to the road to face the Indiana Hoosiers (2-0) on Sept. 22 - the first Big Ten game of the season for the Spartans.
Which makes this bye week all the more important in the face of Saturday night’s game — a much-needed opportunity for MSU to correct its flaws.
And both Willis and quarterback Brian Lewerke know it.
"It'll be good to get some rest,” Lewerke said. “I hope that this bye week will be like a new beginning of the season. Kind of start off how we wanted to."