EAST LANSING, Mich. — Nobody has to tell Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes how poor his team’s pass rush was last year.
After the Spartans had four sacks against Western Michigan last weekend — bringing their season total to five — the sophomore defensive end admitted he understood the significance of stats like that.
“I do. I do. That’s been a big focal point for us this offseason,” Willekes said. “Having five already, two games in, is huge.”
Michigan State had only 11 sacks all of last season, part of the team’s baffling slide to a 3-9 record after winning the Big Ten in 2015. This year, however, the first two games have included some encouraging signs. The sack total is one of them, and so is the fact that the Spartans haven’t allowed an offensive touchdown yet. In wins over Bowling Greenand WMU , the only TDs they gave up were on a couple fumble returns and a kickoff return.
“We’ve always had confidence here,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Even last year, I felt like we had confidence to win every game.”
The Spartans can’t get too carried away with a 2-0 start. They also won their first two games last year — including a victory at Notre Dame — before a seven-game losing skid derailed the season.
Still, if there’s anything that might give Michigan State fans reason for optimism, it would be a return of that defensive swagger that has been a big part of the program’s success under Dantonio.
Michigan State ranked in the FBS top 10 in total defense each season from 2011-14. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi left at the end of that stretch to become the coach at Pittsburgh, but the Spartans were able to overcome injuries to reach college football’s playoff in 2015. They posted last-second victories that year over defending national champion Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh’s first Michigan team.
The Spartans had joined the Big Ten’s elite and were still capable of fending off challenges from the league’s traditional powers.
Then the bottom fell out last year.
Michigan State’s low sack total was in 2016 emblematic of a team that was no longer doing much to disrupt the opposition. The goal this season is to prove that was an aberration, and the Spartans are trying to do that with inexperienced players on both sides of the ball. Expectations for this team were tempered, but so far, Michigan State has done what it needed to do against the two foes from the Mid-American Conference.
“If you turn on the film, you can just see that everyone out there is having a good time, running to the ball,” Willekes said. “You see 11 jerseys running to the ball. Every play, people celebrating. We’re just having fun out there.”
In addition to the uptick in sacks, the Spartans have held opponents to 3 of 28 on third down. The secondary of Khari Willis, Josiah Scott, Matt Morrissey and Josh Butler had a combined five career starts before this season, but that group has looked fine so far.
“They have played the ball very well to the deep part of the field. There’s not a lot of mistakes back there. They have tackled pretty effectively,” Dantonio said. “So you see them limiting yards after a catch and things of that nature. Again, the meat of the schedule is coming, so you know, we’ll just continue to try to take one step at a time here.”
After an open date this past weekend, Michigan State will host Notre Dame in what should be the toughest test yet for this defense. An early game against the Irish is sometimes a bellwether for the Spartans — although oddly, it was not a sign of things to come last year.
Michigan State will need more than just a couple good games to put last year firmly in the past. The Spartans came into this season a bit of an afterthought in a division that includes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. There are again questions about whether Michigan State can compete on a consistent basis with those programs — questions it seemed like the Spartans had answered emphatically before 2016.
Now Michigan State has to prove itself all over again. Last year was an example of how quickly and how far a team can fall, but so far this season, the Spartans are showing signs that they may be back on the right track.
“I feel like it’s a totally different team,” Willis said. “I can’t really see too many similarities from here and last year, other than we both started off 2-0.”
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister