EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Mark Dantonio studies the red-letter games that have ended badly during his Michigan State tenure -- Ohio State and Penn State in 2008, Iowa and Alabama in 2010 -- two reasons stand out for the Spartans' shortcomings.
The first is the most common culprit: turnovers. Any team trying to move up in class -- or "measure up," as Dantonio often says -- can't give the ball away as often as Michigan State did in those games and expect to win.
Every team focuses on limiting turnovers, but the second reason is more Spartans-specific. It also underscores how Michigan State can take the next step after four consecutive bowl appearances under Dantonio.
"We didn't win up front," Dantonio said. "Winning at the point of attack, being able to run the ball effectively against a great football team and stop the run against a great football team, that enters into it."
In recent years Michigan State has proven it can both recruit and develop top-end offensive skill players (Javon Ringer, Devin Thomas, Edwin Baker and Kirk Cousins, to name a few). The Spartans have had outstanding linebackers (Greg Jones, Eric Gordon) and talented defensive backs (Otis Wiley, Chris L. Rucker).
But to truly join the Big Ten's elite, the Spartans must close the gap up front on both sides of the ball. They need offensive linemen and pass rushers that strike fear in opponents.
It's no secret how teams like Wisconsin and Iowa, which typically face bigger recruiting obstacles than Michigan State, have upgraded their programs. The Badgers and Hawkeyes both excel in line play, which has helped them make up for potential deficiencies elsewhere.
The Spartans now must do the same.
"You look at the three teams that won the Big Ten a year ago," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said, "and you would certainly say Ohio State had a tremendous offensive line. You would echo those comments with Wisconsin. I would leave for others to judge what Michigan State's offensive line was or is.
"You go back to years past. Ohio State's established themselves at the top of this league. Penn State has played very well up front. That's the fundamental of football: you win up front."
Michigan State's offensive line had its moments in 2010, especially early on as the team eclipsed 200 rushing yards in five of the first six games. But the rushing production tailed off down the stretch and the Spartans finished with minus-48 yards on the ground against Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Three starters depart, and the competition along the offensive line has ramped up in spring practice. Michigan State's pre-spring depth chart listed four potential starters at center, two potential starters at right guard and a redshirt freshman (Skyler Schofner) as the starting right tackle.
"There's more numbers," Dantonio said, "and I just see more overall athleticism."
The increased athleticism comes in part from moving players like Dan France and Blake Treadwell from defense to offense. Treadwell started five games at nose tackle last season, while the 6-6, 304-pound France was a reserve defensive tackle before moving to left tackle.
Young linemen like Schofner and Travis Jackson also excite the coaches.
"We have an opportunity to develop some quality play up there," said Roushar, who coached the line the past four seasons before being promoted to coordinator. "But there may be some growing pains."
The bar has been raised for Michigan State's defensive line this fall. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is the bell cow after recording eight tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. There's depth inside with senior Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White, who has turned things up in spring ball.
The problem is Worthy's sacks total led the team in 2010, and Jones was the Spartans' sacks leader in 2009. Michigan State needs some true pass rushers to emerge, and the spotlight will be on ends William Gholston, Tyler Hoover, Denzel Drone and Marcus Rush this fall. Gholston, a heralded recruit who spent time at both linebacker and end last year, has found a home with his hand on the ground.
"It starts up front," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said, "and the further coach Dantonio gets in his tenure here, the better we're going to be up front. We might stay the same in the secondary, we might stay the same at receiver.
"But we're going to get better every year on the lines."