Michigan State goes into Saturday's game against Michigan with the same ferocious defense as a year ago and some improved quarterback play. But the biggest difference for the Spartans this time around might be the offensive line.
Head coach Mark Dantonio wasn't making excuses but recounted some of the youth on that line in last season's 12-10 loss to the Wolverines.
"Donavon Clark got the start -- he was a redshirt freshman," Dantonio said. "Blake Treadwell was playing for the first time really full‑time, and Jack Allen was in his second game. So we're a different offensive line than we were last year."
That's true in more ways than one. This particular Spartans line is as deep and experienced as Dantonio has had during his tenure in East Lansing, and it is playing like potentially his best.
While many expected the Michigan State running game to fall off after Le'Veon Bell jumped to the NFL, the opposite has happened. The Spartans are averaging 196.5 rushing yards per game, compared to 149.4 last season. They have also given up just six sacks in eight games, tying them with Iowa for the fewest allowed in the Big Ten. And that has happened with a first-year starting quarterback in Connor Cook.
Treadwell, the senior starting guard, had a simple explanation for the improvement in the line's play.
"We've been gelling a lot more compared to last year," he told ESPN.com, "as well as nobody's had any catastrophic injuries."
Ah, yes, injuries. It's hard to write about the Michigan State offensive line without mentioning them, as that has been a constant problem the past several years. The injury bug has not disappeared this year, as veteran Skyler Burkland had to retire because of persistent health problems, and tackle Fou Fonoti missed time earlier in the year.
But the injuries that ravaged the unit last season presented a hidden benefit in that more players got game experience. This year, Dantonio has seven offensive linemen who have started games, and Michigan State rotates eight guys through the line during games. It includes veterans like fifth-year seniors Treadwell, Fonoti and Dan France as well as talented younger players like redshirt freshman left tackle Jack Conklin and sophomore center Allen.
"If anything, having that rotation helps us from taking a lot of body blows that we've had in the past few years," Treadwell said. "Guys are a lot fresher for games, and everyone else is just that much more into it knowing they're going to play as well."
Offensive line coach Mark Staten mixes and matches, and Treadwell said competition for playing time is so intense that "it keeps everybody on their toes." He saw the beginnings of a potentially special offensive line this summer and said the Youngstown State game is when he felt like the group really started to come together. Running back Jeremy Langford has enjoyed the holes the line has provided for him, as he has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games.
Offensive line has been a sore spot for years in East Lansing. Dantonio hasn't had a single player drafted from the position, and it has lagged behind other well-recruited areas on the team. But this year looks different.
"I think it's our deepest," he said. "I don't want to disrespect anybody else who's played here, but this is as much experience as we've had."
Dantonio said whether it's the best line depends on how the unit finishes the season. A strong performance against Michigan would go a long way toward boosting that claim.