EAST LANSING, Mich. - Depending on the point of view, Michigan State is on track for its big goals, which, really, boils down to the Legends Division and a berth in the Big Ten title game for a second straight season.
The bottomline is the Spartans (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) are keeping it together. It took three-plus quarters to scoot by at Indiana, 31-27, last weekend, so that's set off some alarms, as did the losses to Notre Dame and a one-point home loss to Ohio State. It's not pretty for MSU, but it will go into Saturday's matchup with Iowa (3-2, 1-0) at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., with all that Big Ten stuff still out there.
"We're 4-2, but that first half is something that you don't forget," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said about the Indiana game, which included a 27-14 halftime deficit. "I thought at halftime the players refocused and did a great job setting the tone in the locker room for themselves and started rallying back."
Viewed through the prism of a narrow victory at Indiana, the call out of East Lansing this weekend is the Spartans saved their season and are hanging on for dear life. (Iowa knows all too well about escaping the noose in Bloomington.)
"You don't want to be down 10 going into the fourth quarter," MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell told the Lansing State Journal. "But the character and resilience of our team, we just kept battling and battling and chipping away and came out on top."
Where Iowa's passing game remains a question mark heading into this week's game, the Spartans saw some major growth out of Maxwell and the receiving corps last week.
Remember, MSU is replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keyshawn Martin and Keith Nichol and tight end Brian Linthicum. So, this was going to take some time.
Maxwell clicked for a career-high 290 yards and two touchdowns. True freshman Aaron Burbridge caught eight passes for 134 yards. Add that to running back Le'Veon Bell's consistent production. He had 121 yards and two TDs on 37 carries against IU.
"My No. 1 thoughts after I found out I was going to start was I had to make plays for my teammates," Burbridge ,who became the first true frosh in MSU history to record a 100-yard receiving game, told the school's website after the game. "Football is football. I just had to go out there and play the game I love. I was pretty calm and relaxed and ready to show what I can do."
The Spartans are down two offensive linemen for the season. Also, big tight end Dion Sims, who has 24 catches and two TDs this year, ended last week's game in sweats and an immobilizer on the sidelines.
Defensively against Indiana, the Spartans were simply caught flat-footed by the Hoosiers' hurry-up, no-huddle attack, fueled by quarterback Cameron Coffman's 282 yards and three TDs.
After giving up 270 total yards and 17 first downs in the first half, the Spartan defense held IU to 37 yards and two first downs in the second.
"I think it scares you a little bit when you're in that situation," linebacker Max Bullough said. "But, I think that can bring out the best in you. Our backs were against the wall coming into this game, and certainly even more so when we were down at halftime."
The Spartans' defense has also enjoyed a boost from underclassmen. Sophomore linebacker Taiwan Jones has nudged into senior captain Chris Norman's playing time. Redshirt freshman safety R.J. Williamson tied Bullough for the team-high with nine tackles last week.
"The first thing that comes to my mind is character," MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "We're down 17-0 and our kids just kept believing and sticking with it. That shows we have something in our chest cavity."