As No. 19/20 ranked Michigan State returns to Big Ten Conference play this weekend, the Spartans are set to host Northwestern, who nearly upset No. 15 Michigan last week, on Homecoming, hoping to not only move to 2-0 in conference play but find a team identity moving forward.
This week, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said that despite Northwestern having a disappointing 1-3 record on the season, he expects another tough, conference game against a team that will be looking to build off of last week’s effort.
“I think in this conference every single week you're in for a challenge,” he said. “I don't care who you play, people prepare, they have a plan. I've said over and over it's very tough to win. When you think you have got it in the bag, such as the fourth quarter question, then you're fighting at the end of the fourth quarter to keep it. So, just a tough conference, tough conference, good football, and everybody expects to win. So, I don't know about a wounded bear, I just think everybody comes in thinking that, hey, we're going to compete.”
Through four games of the 2018 season, the Spartans currently sit with a 3-1 record and control their own destiny in the Big Ten, but have yet to put forth a consistent performance for all four quarters.
The Michigan State defense has been rapidly improving since the season-opening win over Utah State, ranking No. 28 in the nation in total defense (328.5 yards per game allowed) and No. 1 in rushing defense (40.3 yards per game allowed).
But the offense has struggled at times throughout the season and hasn’t quite been able to find consistency or an identity so far, ranking No. 90 in total offense (381 yards per game) and No. 71 in scoring offense (29.3 points per game).
Dantonio admitted that he feels his team hasn’t found its identity through its first four games and expects his team to find one in the near future as the Spartans continue to get healthy and move deeper into their conference schedule
“Yeah, I think you try and find your identity of every football team and you don't know when that's going to come,” he said. “I talked to our team yesterday about that, what's our identity, we talk about here's the goals we want to accomplish this next month. We've really been in two months of football, one month of camp and one month of four weeks of one Big Ten game and three out of conference games. So these next four games sort of start to define you a little bit. And then you chase November. You chase championships, you chase bowl games or you chase whatever in November. So these next four weeks are critical weeks, I think, for our football team, we've got to get some players back who are hurt, I think we're going to do that, but again, guys such as Tre Person who played last week should be a better player. I thought he played well with the exception of one play. And that's just an example. So I think you're right, we start to develop an identity. If you go back to 2013 those first four games, who were we? After three games who were we? And then we lost to Notre Dame and then I think we started with Iowa, we started developing an identity and coming out in November we were playing our best football. That's what you want to have happened. You want to play your best football through November.”
But while Northwestern has gotten out to a slow start on the 2018 season, Spartan fans are well aware of the fact that Northwestern has won each of the last two meetings and that Michigan State has not beaten the Wildcats since 2013. Northwestern also has spoiled Homecoming Day for the Spartans in the past, most notably in 2005 when the Spartans lost 49-14.
Dantonio told reporters that his team is looking at Saturday’s game as yet another tough conference game against a team that has found success against the Spartans in recent years and added that it won’t get any easier with No. 11 Penn State up next.
“No, I look at Northwestern as a competitor and we have always had great games with them,” he said. “We have won our share, they have won some, however, maybe they have won their share, however, you want to depict that. I just look at it as another Big Ten game and the next one's going to be a tough game too, and the next one is going to be tough, and the next one's going to be tough, and that's just the way it is in this conference. Everybody has scholarship players, they're well-coached, they're competitive players, competitive people, we'll have the same thing and I think our players will be ready to go. So I'll concern myself with my football team, our football team, and get ready to play.
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