Michigan State's defense hasn't been the subject of many of Mark Dantonio's "challenges" in the early portions of the football season.
But, consider this their first test.
"Be perfect, that's the challenge; be perfect," Dantonio said during his weekly press conference.
The challenge was in regards to two things. For one, with the struggles Michigan State has offensively, the Spartan defense may just have to be perfect to win some games. But, also it is a challenge to finish out games, something Michigan State struggled to do last season and again this season in the Spartans' 10-7 loss against Arizona State.
MSU held the Sun Devils to only three points and less than 200 yards before their final drive. Arizona State drove 75 yards in 11 plays, capped off by Eno Benjamin's 1-yard touchdown reach with less than a minute to go, to upset the Spartans on what could have been Dantonio's 110th career win in East Lansing.
"We gave up one deep ball on the 35 and that one deep ball puts them down on the 25 and that's difficult to stomach because that may seem unfair, but, you know, you've got to play every play and everybody's got to. It's a team game and you can't sit there and say, what if ... only because that separates people and we don't want to separate people," Dantonio said. "Ultimately, this is a team game. You win and lose together. And so that's what we have to do."
In its 13 games last season, Michigan State gave up 104 points in fourth quarters. It's an issue that MSU knows it can't have this season, not with the support it may or may not get from the offense on a weekly basis.
The Spartans have scored seven points offensively in two of its three games this year. That's tough on everybody involved — coaches, the offense and, yes, even the defense. Because, on some occasions, they have to keep opposing teams out of the end zone to give Michigan State a chance to win.
But, it's a challenge they want to take head-on.
“No matter what you’re doing, you always try to be perfect," Mike Panasiuk said Tuesday after practice. "So, if we aren’t trying to be perfect on the field I don’t know why we would be out there, honestly.”
Joe Bachie, a senior team captain, feels the same way, but in a more realistic sense.
"... I'm going to tell you right now it's probably not going to happen. You can never play perfect. Nobody is ever perfect. But, we’re going to go out there and try to shoot for that.”
It may take perfection for the Spartans to get back on track when Michigan State travels to Evanston, Illinois this Saturday to open conference play against Northwestern (12:00 p.m. EDT/ 11 p.m. CDT, ABC).
The Wildcats have found the formula to deciphering MSU's defense, beating the Spartans in each of the last three years.
Michigan State will look to buck that trend.
They didn't need a challenge from Dantonio to try to do it.
“We always strive to be perfect," Bachie said. "It's not like we’re going out there trying to be average. We’re going to go out there and try to be perfect again this Saturday."
Raequan Williams stood surrounded by reporters in his sweaty, green practice jersey and was asked a question about penalties. Of course, Williams committed a crucial personal foul in Michigan State's 10-7 loss against Arizona State that negated a fumble late in the fourth quarter.
After the Spartans committed 10 penalties last Saturday, they became the most penalized team in the Big Ten. And Williams was a little shocked to find that out.
“That's definitely frustrating because we play good ball, we think we play clean ball, but we definitely got to go back into the fundamentals of the game," Williams said. "We can’t be the most penalized team in the conference if we want to win the conference.”
Penalties, on both sides of the ball, hampered the Spartans in their lone loss this season. Along with Williams' hands to the face foul, Michigan State's defense also committed two roughing the passer's on Arizona State's Jayden Daniels. MSU's special teams unit got called for a holding that negated a long punt return by Cody White and a 12 men on the field penalty on what would have been the game-tying field goal by Matt Coghlin.
The Spartans' offense was also hampered by penalties — two delay of games, a holding, an illegal motion and a false start — that set them back in what would have been promising drives.
“We've got to fix that," Dantonio said. "We address it every single day. We have reps out there every single day. You've got to play penalty-free, puts you behind the 8-ball, and also takes away from some of the different plays that occurred on that that were positive plays. It's frustrating, yeah."
In Michigan State's season-opener against Tulsa, the Spartans were called for 14 penalties for 122 yards. They made major progress the following week against Western Michigan, committing only two for 20 yards.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke said the dramatic step backwards was frustrating and one he hopes doesn't carry into this weekend's game against Northwestern.
Lewerke said playing penalty-free football has been an emphasis for the Spartans this week in practice. And with an offensive unit that already struggles to put up points, ill-advised calls will only worsen the situation.
“You don’t want to be able to do that in any week," Lewerke said. "We’re going to try and make sure we don’t do it this game.”